Babies Celebrate as Child Care Bill Toddles Toward President’s Desk
The bill’s major focus is ensuring health and safety. Important provisions also promote access to care for families and improve quality.
The Senate has voted overwhelmingly by a vote of 88-1 to approve the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) for the first time in almost 20 years. Congress returned to work last week after a mid-term election that shook up the balance of power in Washington. It is heartening to see that one of its first acts was final passage of a bipartisan bill reaffirming the primary statement of federal child care policy—including a big pronouncement about the importance of quality infant-toddler care. The House approved the bill prior to the election. The bill (S. 1086) now goes to the President to be signed into law—the first time in its twenty-four year history that CCDBG has had its own stand-alone bill to be signed.
The bill’s major focus is ensuring health and safety. Important provisions also promote access to care for families and improve quality. Babies have reason to celebrate: the bill includes a requirement long promoted by ZERO TO THREE that states set aside 3% of both discretionary and mandatory funds to improve the quality of infant-toddler care. The bill raises the authorized discretionary funding levels over time, from $2.36 billion in FY 2015 to $2.75 billion in 2020.
Child Care as a Brain Construction Site:
While the bill does not set quality standards, it does include noteworthy signals about the role of child care—which some policymakers think of as merely a work support—in supporting early development. As Congress deliberated, ZERO TO THREE promoted the central message that babies’ brains don’t know what adults label the settings where they spend time. Their learning happens from whatever experiences come their way. With about half of all infants and toddlers spending time in child care, a lot of early brain construction happens in these varied settings.
The final bill does include some recognition of this fact. For example, states are required to have early learning guidelines. Most of them already do, but including this requirement in a child care bill makes a key connection between the two. Suggested uses of quality funds include training in promoting social-emotional, cognitive, and physical development and in the science of brain development. Provisions added in the final agreement would help providers address challenging behaviors, again with an emphasis on prevention through positive support for social-emotional health.
Health and Safety:
States will have to substantially bulk up their activities in these areas. Background checks must be performed for all staff in programs receiving CCDBG funds. States also must step up licensing inspections for regulated or licensed programs, conducting one before a program gets a license and visiting all programs unannounced every year. Eventually, license-exempt providers will receive annual visits for a health and safety check. The state has to make sure there are enough inspectors to get the job done, and the results will be made public.
Information for Parents and Providers:
States must make available a range of consumer information for parents. Some information is about providers, including the diversity of settings available, the quality of individual providers (if available in the state), and the requirements for licensing and background checks. Other information concerns research and best practices in early childhood development and policies to address “the social-emotional behavioral health” as well as expulsion of children from early childhood programs. Information on developmental screenings and how families or providers can access services also must be provided.
Training and Professional Development:
One of the most encouraging parts of the bill would require states to have training and professional development systems. These systems must provide for a progression of professional development that reflects research and best practices related to the skills necessary to promote the positive development of young children, and helps improve the quality and stability within the workforce.
Improved Access to Care:
Several provisions help families with stability of care, even when a parent loses a job and must look for another. In those cases, child care assistance must continue for at least 3 months. The bill establishes an initial eligibility period of a year, so families can be assured their care arrangements won’t be disrupted. These practices are particularly important for babies, who need continuity of relationships to support positive development. Other provisions require states to describe how they will increase the supply and quality of care for several special groups, including infants and toddlers, and children with disabilities.
Improving Child Care Quality:
The existing 4% set-aside for quality improvement activities will be increased over time, to 9% in the fifth and final year of the authorization. Unlike existing law, the new authorization includes a list of recommended activities for the quality funds, such as tiered quality rating systems, provider training and professional development, and engaging families in culturally and linguistically appropriate ways.
Of course, the big news for babies is the set-aside designed specifically to improve the quality of infant-toddler care, often at the lower rungs of the quality ladder. Suggested uses include:
- Establishing or expanding high-quality child development centers; Community or neighborhood-based family child care networks;
- Promoting providers’ ability to provide developmentally appropriate services for infants and toddlers through training and professional development; infant-toddler specialist networks; and improved coordination with early intervention specialists.
- Infant-toddler components within QRIS, licensing regulations, or early learning and development guidelines;
- Improving parents’ ability to access information about high-quality care; and
- Other activities that evidence suggests will improve infant-toddler health and safety, development, or wellbeing.
Although the reaffirmation of federal child care policy is reason to celebrate, concerns remain. Requirements for monitoring and background checks, as important as they are to ensure safety, incur a cost that must be covered. If overall CCDBG funding is not increased, states will likely have to cut further into funding that helps families access care. Erosion of child care funding has resulted in a reduction of over 300,000 children served by the program since 2006, according to a CLASP analysis. Expanding funding for child care, at once a critical work support and a major influence on early development and learning, has to be the top early childhood funding priority. Watch for coming alerts to find out how you can help urge Congress to increase CCDBG funding so that child care can be strengthened and families and children can continue to benefit.
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Senator Murray receives the award for making babies and young children a national priority.