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Child Care Standards Nixed

Child Care Standards Nixed

No matter how policy makers look at child care in America, the existing system always seems to come up short. It's too expensive for the average working family. It's in short supply given the immense demand. It's neither stimulating nor safe enough for children. Given the scope of the criticism, many experts have concluded that national standards would be one surefire way to lift the quality of preschool care outside the home.

But when President Clinton recently unveiled his child care initiative, national standards were conspicuously absent, although the issues of affordability, accessibility and quality were all addressed. The reasons for the omission are varied, but certainly high among them was White House realpolitik: The President was loath to include national norms, because it's unlikely that conservatives in Congress would accept them.

Clinton announced his initiative during an upbeat White House press conference on Jan. 7, calling it "the single largest national commitment to child care in the history of the United States." The package includes an increase in the child care block grant to the states of $7.5 billion over the next five years; an increase in tax credits for working families to help them pay child care costs; and a tax credit for businesses that provide child care for their employees. These measures augment policies announced last October that would make scholarships available to child care providers and enable states to share information about caregivers' criminal history.

"There's great jubilation in the child care advocate community," says Faith Wohl, president of Child Care Action Campaign. But Wohl, who formerly worked at the General Services Administration supervising the federal government's civilian child care centers, admits she was disappointed that the President didn't include national standards. "[They] could go a long way toward assuring that every child in America is healthy and safe," she said.

By omitting such regulations, the President is leaving standards to the states. But, as recent research suggests, this may be risky because not every state is getting the job done.

For example, a 1995 study examining child care centers in California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina ranked six out of seven centers poor to mediocre in quality. Another study discovered that 13 per cent of regulated and a whopping 50 per cent of the smaller unregulated home-based facilities offered inadequate care. In addition, a 1997 survey found that an overwhelming majority of states don't have pre-service training requirements for child care workers.

If child care in the states is mostly substandard, then why didn't the President's package include national regulatory standards to whip the deficient child care providers into shape? Well, as one Administration official put it, "In the past, trying to establish national standards has not been successful at all." Indeed, anything with the word "national" in it seems to pique the Republican-controlled, states-rights-leaning Congress. When Clinton last year floated voluntary national education tests, for instance, Congress quickly voiced its displeasure.

At the moment, the White House believes that its child care initiative has solid bipartisan support, although Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, in last week's Republican radio address, criticized it for being too expensive. Yet there wouldn't be even lukewarm GOP support, White House officials and child care advocates insist, if the President had included national standards.

Wohl says this sort of political manuevering sacrifices the standards that every American child deserves. "There's no one in this field who doesn't feel that standards should be the same everywhere," she said. Yet many state child care officials, Administration staff members and academic researchers argue that reforms on the local level provide the most effective route to high-quality care. "States do a better job developing regulations for themselves," says JoAnne Flodin, who supervises day care licensing for Rhode Island. And Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department's Administration of Children and Families, says giving the states flexibility "is an essential part of this initiative that can allow for different innovative approaches."

National standards could also adversely affect states that are providing quality care, contends William T. Gormley, a professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. "There are some states that are doing an exemplary job, and those states might actually regress towards the mean and do a worse job" if federal standards were less stringent than local regulations.

Gormley asserts that poor standards aren't the crux of problem. Rather, he says, the weakest link is the lack of enforcement in many states. "It's extremely unlikely that a day care center will have its license revoked, even if the day care center violates numerous regulations and fails to provide for a healthy and safe environment for children." The Clinton Administration has included in its package an additional $500 million over the next five years for the states to strengthen enforcement.

Because the Administration nixed national standards, it's now up to the states to improve the quality of child care. And the disappointment of child care specialists has been quickly replaced by pragmatism. "In an ideal world, I'd love to see national standards, [but] it's not going to happen," says Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate at Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy. "We've got to work with what we've got and work to strengthen state standards."

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