Back in the 1990s, thewas seen primarily as a workforce-investment vehicle. But, under a pending renewal measure, slated for action in the Senate education committee this fall, states would be encouraged to use the grants to help early-childhood programs and their staffs get children age birth through age 5 ready for school.
States also would be required to put in place basic safety measures, including background checks for program employees.
“There’s a lot more interest in children starting school ready to learn. That’s kind of evolved over the last 15 to 20 years,” said Grace Reef, who worked on the initial development of the program as a Senate aide in the 1990s. She is now the founder of the Early Learning Policy Group, a consulting organization based in Burke, Va.
“There’s a lot more policymakers making that connection that, hey, the achievement gap doesn’t just start in kindergarten,” she said.
If children are going to start school ready to learn, Ms. Reef added, “you don’t want a family child-care center with the TV on all day. But in many states, there’s no restriction.”
To help programs improve, the proposed legislation, introduced last spring and co-authored by U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulsi, D-Md., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., would call for states to set aside a greater share of their federal funds to improve early-childhood programs that benefit from the grants and spend the money in a more deliberate way.
Similar general goals are mirrored in draft regulations for the program—the first issued in years—put forth by the Obama administration in May.
The block grant program, which is administered by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, gets about $5.2 billion a year in federal funding, plus state matching funds. The money helps states provide grants to low-income parents to cover the cost of child care and after-school care, typically through a voucher that parents can use at the home-based program or child-care center of their choice.
States have a lot of say over key implementation issues, such as how much of their own money parents must kick in to gain access.
But under the bill, states would be encouraged to be more purposeful in helping programs improve. For instance, states now have to allocate 4 percent of their funding to bolster program quality. That percentage would gradually increase to 10 percent by 2018 under the legislation.
States would have to be much more explicit about how they were using the dollars—choosing from a broad range of options that includes beefing up staff training and giving parents more “consumer information” to help them compare different providers.
The bill also would require states to put in place a host of safety standards, many of which Ms. Reef described as “no-brainers” that most parents would expect were already on states’ radar when giving stamps of approval to early-childhood programs.
For instance, the bill would call for states to conduct background checks of employees, including checking state criminal and sex-offender registries and state-based abuse and neglect registries. Currently, just 12 states require a comprehensive background check—including fingerprinting—for employees of child-care centers, Ms. Reef said.
Under the legislation, states would also have to ensure that recipients of federal block grant funds had staff members trained in areas including basic first-aid and CPR, proper hand-washing, and prevention of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS.
Although the new safety measures would be directed only at programs that received the block grant dollars, advocates are hoping that states would decide to take the hint and apply the new requirements to all their early-childhood programs, she said.
The new emphasis on program quality at the heart of the legislation dovetails with other recent federal efforts backed by the Obama administration and members of Congress to spur states to better serve children from birth through 5. They include the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which is giving money to more than a dozen states so far to improve their early-childhood-education systems, and a recent initiative to require Head Start programs that did not meet federal standards to recompete for their grants.
And the administration’s plan to help states offer universal prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds also includes $750 million for preschool development grants to strengthen program quality.
Given how long reauthorization of the block-grant program has sat dormant, advocates say there’s a lot to cheer in the fact that there’s a bipartisan bill on the table in the Senate. But so far, the House education committee—which is controlled by Republicans—has not made any move to reauthorize the program. Advocates are hoping that action in the Democratic-controlled Senate might prod the other chamber to act.
Despite lack of interest in the House right now, the measure may have enough appeal to skirt the traditional partisan gridlock, some proponents say.
“It’s a bill that’s not that expensive and doesn’t add that much in terms of mandates,” said David Gray, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Congress Angles to Revamp Child-Care Grant Program