10/08/2011 07:47 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

Progress on Child Care Policy

Over the past few months there has been surprising progress made in the area of child care policy. Since the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG) act became law in 1990 and was expanded and reauthorized in 1996 as part of welfare reform, there has been little real progress on substantive federal child care legislation. Congress came close to reauthorizing CCDBG in 2002, but did not.

Meanwhile, there have been continual calls from state officials, advocates, local practitioners and parents to improve the quality of available child care in America. Too many of the 11 million American children under age 5 who are in daily non-parental care situations need to see the quality of their care improve.

At least 4 percent of CCDBG funding goes to improve the overall quality of child care, but in this age of constrained federal resources, it would seem unlikely that any substantive progress could be made on policies to improve quality.

However, some hope has emerged over the past few months. Last March, Senator Richard Burr introduced the Child Care Protection Act of 2011 to require comprehensive background checks for child care providers. While Republicans in recent years have not focused on child care policy as much as have Democrats (Democratic Senators such as Bob Casey have suggested practical solutions recently, as well), Senator Burr has shown impressive willingness to engage in the details of substantive child care policy, and his common-sense bill is fruit of such efforts.

The efforts of Senator Burr and others are having an impact. On Sept. 20, the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child Care released a memorandum urging CCDBG Lead Agencies to conduct comprehensive background checks for child care providers serving children who receive subsidies.

On Sept. 8, Senator Burr joined with Senator Barbara Mikulski and others as the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families held a hearing on child care quality and safety. Near the end of the hearing Senator Mikulski, who chaired the meeting, sounded an optimistic tone about the opportunity to reauthorize CCDBG during the current congress. While advocates and interested parties have heard such statements before over the past 15 years, there now seem to be enough bipartisan ideas and interest around quality that even without a significant boost in funding, progress on legislation seems possible and real improvements can be made.

October is National Work and Family month. It's a time that reminds us of the importance of policies like child care that allow parents to both work and to see that their children are cared for. Work and family balance is an important challenge for millions of Americans. Work and family balance policy recognizes the importance of quality child care to the long-term well-being of families. Child care policy has long been an area of stalled progress. However, perhaps as resources are constrained and likely will be for a while, attention is turning to other realistic ways to improve child care quality. Surprising bipartisan action might result.