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Landmark Bill for Child Care?

Congress is so close to passing landmark child-care legislation that it must keep inching forward despite threats of a presidential veto or efforts by some House members to adopt a minimal program.

The Senate and a key House committee have passed bills that differ in some specific ways but are so alike in basic approach that they can and should be merged into significant legislation. It is time for Congress to act to help fill the growing need for better child care.

In late June, the Senate passed the Act for Better Child Care Services, known as the ABC bill, that provides $1.75 billion for a combination of tax credits to parents and grants to states to increase child-care programs and to help parents pay for care. In so doing, the Senate rejected a presidentially backed substitute that would have relied solely on tax credits. The bill also requires states to set safety standards for child-care programs.

Days later, the House Education and Labor Committee approved HR 3, the Child Development and Education Act of 1989. The bill provides $1.78 billion for a variety of children’s programs, including subsidies for child care. It differs from the Senate bill in that it calls for a major expansion of the Head Start preschool program and provides financial incentives for school systems to develop more child-care programs.

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In a separate action this past week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved tax credits for child care. That’s good, but that committee’s bill contains only $400 million a year to expand the supply of day care and improve its quality. That’s far less than what the Senate passed or what is contained in HR 3. Thus, the Ways and Means Committee bill alone will not be sufficient to provide real improvement in child care. Groups like the Children’s Defense Fund hope to win commitments soon from House members to combine the tax-credit bill and HR 3. That way the House would go to a conference committee with the Senate with the strongest possible package.

Most of the principal players are in familiar roles of leadership. Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is one, and Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime advocate of improved child care, is another. But one key figure is a surprise. He is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who has been severely criticized for his role and deserves special commendation. Hatch, a conservative, told an interviewer: “I think I’m doing what’s right. I started looking at the statistics and the facts, and when you do, you ask, ‘What are we doing to our families?’ You’ve got to be concerned about the parents who just don’t know what to do.”

Unfortunately, President Bush does not yet share Hatch’s insight. Bush says he will veto any ABC-type bill. He prefers to let parents decide with their dollars what kind of care they want. But the small tax credit he has in mind would leave parents with minimal care and do nothing to help create badly needed new programs. Parents want and deserve a better choice than the one the President offers. Congress should give it to them by passing a combination of the solid measures now before it.


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