03.12.14

Harkin Opens Senate Floor Debate on Bipartisan Child Care Legislation

17th Bipartisan HELP Bill Considered by Full Senate in the 113th Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today opened Senate floor debate on the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014.  The bipartisan reauthorization will expand access to and improve the quality of child care for the more than 1.5 million children and families that benefit from the federal child care subsidy program. Read more about the bill here.

“The last reauthorization of this program took place 18 years ago, at a time when child care was principally seen as a work-support activity and only incidentally as something that could have a positive impact on the development of children.  Today, backed up by impressive scientific research, we know that this program can and should be much more.  In addition to providing vital work support for parents, it should be a rich early-learning opportunity for children,” Harkin said. “The bill before us represents a strong, positive advance for low-income families who benefit from the child care subsidy. The bill makes many needed improvements that will help establish high expectations for federally subsidized child care in this country.”

The legislation, which was unanimously approved by the Committee in September 2013, represents the 17th bipartisan HELP Committee bill in the 113th Congress to be considered by the full Senate. Ten of those bills have already been signed into law.

Chairman Harkin’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, are as follows.

“I am pleased that the Senate is now considering the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act of 2014. This bill was voted unanimously out of the HELP Committee last September and I fully expect it will receive strong bipartisan support here on the Senate floor.  I would like to give tremendous credit and thanks to my friends Senators Mikulski and Burr, the sponsors of this legislation, for their leadership in this process and for creating a bill that takes huge steps in improving the lives of children and families. I’d also like to thank Senator Alexander for his partnership and for working with me to reauthorize this vital program.  Our offices have worked very collaboratively over the last two years to produce a strong, bipartisan bill. 

“The actions we take today in reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant are crucial.  This program, which this fiscal year is allocated more than five billion dollars in discretionary and mandatory funding, supports more than 1.5 million children across the country, more than half of whom are infants, toddlers, or pre-school aged children. Those national numbers are consistent with my home state of Iowa where nearly 54% of children served through the child care program are younger than 5 years old.

“The last reauthorization of this program took place 18 years ago, at a time when child care was principally seen as a work-support activity and only incidentally as something that could have a positive impact on the development of children.  Today, backed up by impressive scientific research, we know that this program can and should be much more.  In addition to providing vital work support for parents, it should be a rich early-learning opportunity for children.

“In 2000, the National Research Council published a ground-breaking report called Neurons to Neighbourhoods.  The report’s authors said that ‘from the time of conception to the first day of kindergarten, development proceeds at a pace exceeding that of any subsequent stage of life . . . that what happens during the first months and years of life matters a lot, not because this period of development provides an indelible blueprint for adult wellbeing, but because it sets either a sturdy or fragile stage for what follows.’

“This report reinforces what we already know: learning starts at birth, and the preparation for learning begins before birth. Eighty percent of a child’s brain develops between birth and the age of 3.  Because much of a child’s intellect and skills develop before he or she begins kindergarten, we need to give all children every opportunity to reach their full potential at the earliest stages of life. This means supporting access to high-quality early-learning programs, including high-quality child care.

“The bill before us represents a strong, positive advance for low-income families who benefit from the child care subsidy. The bill makes many needed improvements that will help establish high expectations for federally-subsidized child care in this country.

“The legislation accomplishes many things, but I will highlight a few of the most significant changes. Under this bill, states will need to develop minimum education and training requirements for child care workers that describe what they must know and be able to do to promote the healthy development of the children they serve. Just as we know that a great teacher is one of the most important factors in the educational success of our kids in elementary and secondary school, so too we know that one of the critical components in the development of children is whether they have supportive, nurturing interactions with caring adults. 

“One of the most important things we do in this bill is to ensure that the settings where parents send their children are safe and promote healthy development.  This includes ensuring that licensed child care providers receive a pre-licensure inspection and at least one annual inspection thereafter. Alarmingly, some states inspect child care centers only once every five years. Some states don’t even do a pre-licensure inspection until a provider is serving more than a dozen children.

“This bill also stipulates that states must demonstrate how they are meeting the needs of some of the most vulnerable children who receive care, including children with disabilities; infants and toddlers; and children whose parents work non-traditional hours. I want to highlight that the sponsors of this bill took great care to ensure that child care programs supported through CCDBG would be well-suited for children with special needs and their families. For example, the legislation asks States to consider the unique needs of children with disabilities when developing training requirements for child care workers. Also, the legislation asks states to issue publicly available consumer education information so that parents know the types of services that are available to them through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including programs for preschoolers or infants and toddlers with disabilities.

“I’m proud to say that this bill provides families with the stability and peace of mind they so richly deserve by ensuring that families receive care for at least a year once they are deemed initially eligible. Currently, some states require parents to re-apply for care after only a few months.  In other cases, states will kick parents off of care if they receive a small pay raise that makes them ineligible under the state’s eligibility guidelines. This bill remedies these problems by ensuring that, as long as a parent is working or in a training program and whose income does not exceed 85 percent of the state’s median income, they’ll get care for a year without having to worry. This helps children as much as it does parents because it allows kids to make the attachments to caring adults that are so necessary during those earliest years. 

“This bill also ensures that parents will be given better and more comprehensive consumer education information so that they can choose a child care arrangement that suits their needs and the needs of their children. For instance, the bill supports the development of a website that will be available to all parents to show them the range of child care providers in their area.

“While I’m excited about the advances and reforms in this bill, there is still far more that we must accomplish. As it now stands, the law allows states to set their own eligibility criteria for families based on income as long as it does not exceed 85 percent of the state’s median income. But, if we were to look at all of the children aged 0-13 living in families below that income level, we’re only serving about 18 percent of those kids. If you look at pre-school aged kids, those who are aged zero-to-five, we do slightly better, and states are serving a little more than a quarter of children who would be eligible under the federal guideline.

“As Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education, I have fought for years to increase funding for the program so that we could serve more children. The Fiscal Year 2014 omnibus included a more than $154 million increase for the child care program, which more than replaced the $118 million cut in Fiscal Year 2013 that resulted from sequestration. This increased funding will help states improve access to quality, affordable child care by increasing the number of children who can receive it.

“But we need to do much, much more. If you look at this graph, you’ll see that, if funding for child care had kept pace with inflation over the last decade, funding would be $600 million higher this year – at a level of $5.9 billion instead of $5.3 billion. Imagine how many more children we could have served, how we could have increased reimbursement rates for provides, how we could have improved health and safety standards and other measures of quality.

“The investments that we were able to make in Fiscal Year 2014 were made possible by the bipartisan budget agreement that Congress passed last December, which provided partial relief from sequestration in FY14 and FY15. But, even with that budget agreement, discretionary spending caps will be very tight this coming fiscal year, keeping discretionary spending—which pays for everything from child care to biomedical research to our transportation infrastructure—essentially flat.

“I mention this only to emphasize that while the changes in this bill will provide a marked improvement for children and families currently receiving care, we can and should do much more to provide increased investment so that more children and more families can benefit from high-quality child care.

“It is imperative that we pass this legislation today.  Once we do, I look forward to working closely with our colleagues in the House to secure its passage there.  And, once this bill is signed into law, I look forward to continuing to work cooperatively with my congressional colleagues to ensure that the law is implemented through regulations that comport with the parameters set forth in legislation.

“This is a very good bill, and I am proud of our efforts.   I urge my colleagues to join in the bipartisan spirit of cooperation that we have witnessed in the HELP Committee over the last year.”

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