Blog: The Educated Reporter

Congress Ramps Up Efforts to Address Child-Care Costs

Action on Capitol Hill to address early childhood care and education is heating up, with key deadlines looming and critical legislation pending.

Last week, Democrats in the House and Senate introduced an ambitious child-care plan, while a House panel approved a bill to extend a popular federal home visiting program that seeks to help low-income families raise healthy children. That program, currently funded at $400 million, is set to expire unless Congress acts by the end of the month.

These developments come as President Trump and congressional Republicans are gearing up to push for an overhaul of the tax system.

The White House this spring pledged to provide “tax relief for families with child and dependent care expenses” as part of a tax-code rewrite. According to Politico, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, continues to lobby conservatives to use tax reform as a vehicle to address the high cost of child care.

‘Skyrocketing Costs’

Not content to wait and see what comes of the tax reform effort, Democrats in the House and Senate last week introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, an ambitious bill that would dramatically expand government investment in the care and education of children from birth through age five.

“The skyrocketing costs of child care today are forcing parents to pay more than they make and some are even forced to quit their jobs,” said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the senior Democrat on the Senate education committee. “And a lack of high-quality programs … can impact kids throughout their lives.”

In addition to supporting universal access to preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, the bill would leverage federal subsidies to ensure that low- and middle-income families would pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care. In all, the changes would more than double the number of children eligible for child-care assistance.

Currently, a complex web of federal programs support early childhood care and education, the largest of which are Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Head Start, funded at more than $9 billion annually, supports school readiness through locally run programs that serve nearly 1 million children between birth and 5 years old.

Meanwhile, the voucher-like CCDBG, funded at $5.7 billion currently, provides subsidies to low-income working families to use at the child-care program of their choice. Nearly 1.5 million children received support under the program in 2014.

Supporters of increased investment in child-care programs point out that, partly due to inadequate funding, each of these programs reaches only a fraction of eligible children.

The Democratic legislation introduced last week also would bolster pay and training for the child-care workforce. With wages that typically fall well below that of a K-12 teacher, nearly half of the nation’s 2 million child-care workers rely on some form of government assistance, research shows. Improving compensation and training for these workers, early learning advocates say, is a critical component to raising the quality of early care and education.

With Republicans in control of the House and Senate, the Democrats’ child-care bill, which does not include a funding plan, is likely dead on arrival.

To the extent that President Trump and some congressional Republicans have signaled a desire, or at least an openness, to addressing child care, it’s been within the context of tax reform, not increased government spending.

As we explained when the White House released its outline for tax reform in April, there are multiple strategies the federal government could pursue through tax reform to make child care more affordable for families.

While Republicans’ plans to reform the tax code remain ambiguous and on an uncertain timeline, some recent signs suggest that child-care assistance may still be in the mix.

Last week, Politico reported that Ivanka Trump is working with Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) on a plan to expand the federal tax credit for child care. In April, The Washington Post reported that the administration was considering making the tax credit refundable — a change that would allow low- and middle-income families that do not owe taxes to receive a tax refund for some of their child-care expenses.

Clock Ticking on Home Visiting Program

Meanwhile, funding for the federal home visiting program is set to expire at the end of September unless Congress acts.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program provides low-income families with resources and support to raise healthy children. Families receive regular home visits from health, social services, and child development professionals.

The program, which has enjoyed bipartisan support served more than 160,000 parents in 2016. A Republican-backed reauthorization bill approved by the House Ways and Means Committee last week would maintain level funding for another five years, Politico reported.

But tripping up what might otherwise be a bipartisan effort is is a provision in the bill that would require states to match federal funding for the program.

“Based on the current fiscal situation in my state, I’m not confident they’ll be able to come up with the money,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told Politico.

Republicans argue that the matching requirement will not compromise the program but, rather, strengthen it by ensuring that states have a stake in it.

On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would extend the home visiting program but, notably, does not include the state matching requirement. With just days left before the program is set to expire, it’s unclear how, or if, the two chambers will reconcile these differences to keep the program alive.

EWA’s Early Learning Seminar

The issue of child care is one that reaches into communities across the country. However, with a patchwork of programs and funding, it can be a difficult topic for education reporters to cover.

On November 6-7, EWA will convene education reporters for an early learning seminar in Chicago.