Who should pay for child care?

A Denver plan to raise taxes to help kids mirrors efforts nationwide - and prompts questions about responsibility.

When the new landlords doubled the rent for the LoDo Learning Center in downtown Denver this summer, the day-care facility had no choice. It closed its doors. The parents of its 86 children had to scramble to find alternative care, especially for infants. At some centers here, waiting lists for babies run two years.

A few weeks later, a local early-childhood center nearly got evicted because its landlord had agreed to sell the building.

What's happening here in Denver is taking place across the nation. Child care and early-learning centers are struggling to stay open as parents struggle to pay their rising tuition costs. The widening gap is straining the budgets not only of low-income families, many of whom already receive federal aid, but also of middle-class parents.

As a result, a number of cities are moving toward making some children's services the equivalent of a social responsibility, like public schools, rather than an individual family's burden.

While the moves raise sensitive questions about funding and the appropriate role of government, they are spreading nonetheless. For example:

*In April, Seattle's metropolitan county council approved a $1.5 million, five-year pilot program to raise the pay of day-care workers by up to $1 an hour.

*San Francisco's Willie Brown has budgeted an extra $11.7 million to pay a $9-an-hour minimum wage to employees of child-care and other nonprofit agencies that provide services to the city.

*Denver residents will vote this fall on a 0.2-cent rise in the city sales tax to pay for a host of day-care, early-education, and other child services.

"We've spent that much on our sports teams" and their stadiums, says Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. "I think our children deserve 2 cents for every $10 spent."

"It's getting real close to a middle-class issue," adds Barbara O'Brien, president of Colorado Children's Campaign, a nonprofit child-advocacy group in Denver.

States have already taken some steps to help strapped families. In the wake of welfare reform, which has moved poor single mothers into the workforce, state governments have eased eligibility requirements so more working families can qualify for aid.

Also, 42 states now have some form of prekindergarten initiatives, according to the Child Care Action Campaign, and a handful more are moving toward universal prekindergarten programs.

The moves by cities are still more nascent. They represent piecemeal recognition that the workplace has changed dramatically in the past 30 years. Nearly two-thirds of mothers of preschoolers now work. After food and housing, day care is the biggest expense for young families, according to the Census Bureau. In Denver, it's easy to spend $6,000 a year per child.

Nevertheless, business shoulders little of the burden. According to a 1997 study, the private sector contributed only 1 percent of the nation's child-care expenses, while governments kicked in 39 percent, and parents paid 60 percent. The parental share of child care is more than double the share they pony up to send their children to public colleges and universities.

"The employment system in America has not caught up with the reality of most Americans' lives," says Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Parents bear the brunt of finding day care and paying for it. "We don't think of this as a public issue."

CHILD advocates say the federal child-care tax credit, passed in 1976, is inadequate now. That's due partly to the increasing needs of parents, they say, partly to accumulating research that suggests early-childhood education is key to future success.

Here in a disadvantaged Hispanic neighborhood in Denver, for example, the Family Star center teaches low-income children from infants to three-year-olds.

Combining the techniques of Montessori with federal Head Start program funds, the staff urges children to take control of their environment. They're taught to feed themselves with tiny spoons and drink out of cups. The early intervention enhances success later on.

At age 6, the average child has been exposed to 13,000 words, says Lereen Castellano, executive director of Family Star. But the child from a disadvantaged neighborhood hears only 3,000. "If you don't have language, you can't navigate your way out of poverty. [And] "the optimal time for learning and adapting to the world is zero to three."

The center has won national recognition for raising the reading levels of its children. But the facility nearly lost its leased building this summer when the landlord accepted an offer from a group that wanted to start a charter school. The charter school found another location, and Mayor Webb has stepped in with a $125,000 challenge grant to help Family Star buy the building.

Still, challenges remain for any facility handling small children. "It's very hard to find child-care workers," says Donna Legaard, director of the Custom House Children's Center in one of the city's federal buildings. There, pay starts at $7 an hour. When the state of Washington surveyed its day-care workers in 1998, it found they made less than short-order cooks and janitors.

The debate has even entered the presidential campaign. In June, Democratic nominee Al Gore proposed a $38 million program easing qualifications for the current child-care tax credit, mostly targeted to low-income families but also providing some relief to families earning up to $60,000 a year. Republican nominee George W. Bush would only target the poor but says his proposed income-tax cut could help working families pay their child-care bills.

It's not clear how the electorate will respond. In 1998, President Clinton also tried to expand the child-care tax credit. But Republicans successfully blocked him, arguing that the move would be unfair to mothers who stayed home.

Here in Denver, Mayor Webb also faces an uphill battle to convince the electorate to pass his sales-tax rise. "I think it's going to be tough for some members of the business community," he says. City stores will charge more than surrounding suburbs. "It will be tough for the community who doesn't have kids."

It also raises enduring questions of fairness and government funding. "I don't think that it will pass," adds Ms. Legaard. People will say: "If my kids aren't in Denver child care, why should I vote for it?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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