Federal day-care bills: `You have to start somewhere'. Three measures are before Congress; support is strong

AS neighborhood day-care providers wrestle with zoning tangles, federal lawmakers are launching bills designed to strengthen child-care services throughout the United States. Backers of the legislation cite growing numbers of working mothers, huge waiting lists at child-care centers in many areas, and tragic news reports of children left in inadequate care or with no adult supervision at all. The time for federal action is now, they argue.

Three day-care measures are vying for congressional attention:

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Rep. Dale Kildee (D) of Michigan have introduced a bill to spend $2.5 billion to upgrade child care and make it more affordable. They target low- to moderate-income Americans, directing federal aid toward families that earn 115 percent of a state's median income.

This would mean, for example, an upper limit of $41,656 for a family of four in California; $37,017 in Texas; $39,530 in Illinois; $39,650 in New York; and $44,941 in Massachusetts, according to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service. Money could reach these families directly, through certificates parents would use to purchase child care, or indirectly, through grants to facilities serving low-income families.

A second bill has been put forward by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. It allocates a more modest $875 million, to be spent over three years. The thrust of this legislation, according to Chris Iverson, a Republican aide with the Senate Labor and Human Resources Subcommittee, is to provide ``seed'' money to stimulate development of day-care services locally.

A third piece of legislation, also introduced by Senator Dodd, would channel $120 million to states to help public schools move into the child-care arena. Under the bill, ``demonstration projects'' at schools around the US would provide all-day care for preschoolers beginning at age 3 and before- and after-school care for older youngsters up to 12.

This approach takes advantage of the $2 trillion the country has already invested in school buildings, notes Edward Zigler, head of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and architect of the measure.

Critics have argued that the first of these, the Dodd-Kildee legislation, won't help thousands of dual-wage-earner families whose income exceeds the bill's limits, but who still have trouble finding and paying for day care.

``You have to start somewhere - you can't propose a $10 billion program,'' retorts Helen Blank, a child-care specialist with the Children's Defense Fund. Her organization is part of the 108-member Alliance for Better Childcare, a collection of social service, educational, religious, and labor groups that has coalesced behind the legislation.

``In comparison to the need, it's a measured response,'' says Damian Thorman, a Democratic aide on the House Human Resources Subcommittee. The money amount in the Dodd-Kildee bill is only $500 million more than the $2 billion federal child-care legislation passed in 1971 and then vetoed by President Nixon. The need has multiplied many times since then, Mr. Thorman says.

Senator Hatch's bill emphasizes decisionmaking at the state and local level, Ms. Iverson points out. States are responsible for strong child-care standards; funding is then tied to adherence to these standards. The Dodd-Kildee measure, by contrast, calls for an advisory committee to frame national standards as well.

Some worry that the existence of federal child-care standards would tend to channel resources toward larger day-care centers - where such standards could most easily be monitored and enforced - and away from home-based or family care.

With an increased federal role, ``pretty soon we'll have a child-care market that won't look unlike the public schools - institutionalized and expensive,'' asserts one House Republican staff member, who asked not to be named.

Home-based care won't be slighted under the Dodd-Kildee bill, counters Ms. Blank. Families will be able to use federal funds to purchase such care, she points out. Also, the bill provides for strengthening so-called resource and referral networks, which make it easier for parents to find out about family day-care providers in a community.

Mr. Hatch's legislation has some provisions aimed especially at home-based child care. They include formation of a revolving loan fund to help providers bring their residences up to state safety standards; treatment of day-care providers as individual taxpayers rather than as small businesses subject to complex filing rules; and liability insurance reforms to make it easier for home-based providers to buy coverage.

What's the outlook for quick action on a federal day-care bill this year?

``The prognosis is excellent - I think we're going to get this moving,'' says Thorman. The Dodd-Kildee bill had amassed 34 co-sponsors in the Senate and 134 in the House. The Hatch measure has 10 co-sponsors in the Senate.

``For the first time in 20 years of working on this, I see very broad ideological support,'' adds Dr. Zigler.

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