New Year, New Congress!
The New Year brings with it a new Congress—the 114th—and a more sharply divided government.
The Republican party now controls both Houses of Congress, while the Executive branch remains under Democratic control as President Obama’s term winds down. Where do babies stand in the policymaking agenda? They may not be at the top, but nevertheless they will figure in potential legislative and administrative actions on a variety of issues. These actions will provide advocates with ample opportunities to underscore the importance of getting all babies off to a good start. And who knows? Perhaps coming together around addressing young children’s needs, as they did in the last Congress around child care, could be a way to bridge the divide.
Opportunities to discuss a baby agenda will arise because key programs for children and families must be revisited periodically as they are reauthorized—or because a major reauthorization must now be implemented. Legislation also will be introduced on other critical issues, perhaps with less chance of enactment in the near future, but creating a big opening for advocating for broad, cohesive policies that promote positive early development.
Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG): Sure, we just worked with Congress to pass the long-overdue reauthorization. Now comes the less glamorous, but infinitely important task of rolling up our sleeves and ensuring the law is well implemented in the states. In late January, the Department of Health and Human Services will propose an outline, or preprint, states must follow in developing their plans, giving 30 days for public comment. Once the preprint is finalized, states will have a limited time to prepare their plans, which will have to incorporate new features in the law. A key part of this process is an opportunity for the public to comment. Infant-toddler advocates should become informed about their state’s process and be prepared to provide input to ensure that state plans work toward quality care for infants and toddlers.
Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV): We last left MIECHV after working hard to secure a 6-month extension of its authorization in the “Doc fix” or SGR bill. It’s been almost long enough to forget what SGR stands for (it’s Sustainable Growth Rate for Medicare payments), so it must be time for the authorization to expire once again. In fact, we have until March 31 to secure another MIECHV extension. Advocating for this extension, possibly once again using SGR as a legislative vehicle, will be ZERO TO THREE’s top federal policy priority for the next few months.
Head Start/Early Head Start (EHS) Reauthorization: This centerpiece of federal early childhood education policy is at the end of its authorization, although it will continue as long as there are appropriated funds for it. The Committees that oversee it do not expect to take up legislation to extend the program this year, but certainly will soon begin gathering input and ideas for any changes to it. Advocates should already be thinking about issues that need addressing and communicating those to lawmakers and other advocates. Some food for thought: the implications of initiatives such as the EHS-Child Care Partnerships and expanded pre-K for the future mission and formulation of Head Start/Early Head Start; preserving EHS focus on reaching families during the prenatal period and supporting vulnerable families regardless of the parents’ work status; continuing efforts to ensure quality; and the possibilities of innovation.
Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA): CAPTA is a small funding source with a big vision. Again, action on its reauthorization likely is not imminent, but now is the time to think about how the programs under the Act are working and changes that are needed. For example, the requirement that infants and toddlers with substantiated instances of abuse or neglect be screened for referral to early intervention services under Part C of IDEA—how has that worked and what challenges have states encountered?
Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Speaking of Part C, which funds early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities, it is overdue for reauthorization. Detecting and addressing delays and disabilities early should be seen as a key to policymakers’ goal of more school-ready children, but it always seems to be an afterthought. As advocates, we need to inform policymakers about this program’s importance and come together around policy changes that will reach more infants and toddlers when services could really make a difference.
Paid Family Leave: Legislation such as the FAMILY Act likely will be reintroduced to expand the ability of families to take time off with a newborn or newly adopted child as well as for their own extended illness or that of a family member by ensuring some wage replacement. As successful as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in guaranteeing job protection for these purposes, too many families have not been able to use it because they are not covered or because they cannot afford to take unpaid leave. Most disturbing are the disparities in access: black and Latino working parents are the least likely to be able to access leave because they either are not covered by FMLA or they cannot afford unpaid time off. Infant-toddler advocates need to become a potent force in advocating for all parents to be able to spend time with their babies. As they build relationships with their young children, fostering the bonding and attachment that are the roots of positive development, parents are actually the front line of preparing our future workers and citizens. Shouldn’t they be assured of the unhurried time to start this important task?
These issues and others (such as child nutrition, infant-early childhood mental health, developmental approaches in child welfare) make it clear that babies have their own agenda, whether recognized as such by policymakers or not. ZERO TO THREE will be articulating this baby agenda in our new federal policy priorities, out soon, and will explore issues and upcoming actions in more depth. In the meantime, advocates should be thinking about how they can show their Members of Congress that babies need to be “on the program” if we are to address national problems ranging from achieving success in school to competing in a global economy.
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It is up to advocates to make sure that early childhood policy is informed not just by research, but by demographics and a sense of equity.