Is Child-care Policy Today Similar to Past Education Reform?

Recent discussions about reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), the main federal legislation helping support America's child-care system, remind me of where we were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, before reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the main federal K-12 education support statue). I was a staffer advising a U.S. senator on education policy at the time and remember the focus on accountability in education. The national debate at the time centered around how to raise the quality of educational outcomes for children by boosting accountability of teachers, schools and dollars. At the time, a bipartisan group of congresspeople and senators, along with the White House, rallied a bill around that principle of accountability.

Today, a bipartisan group in Congress is making good progress around CCDBG reauthorization. I am struck by how the focus has shifted in the national discussions from talking about quality to talking about accountability. I spoke recently to Republican leadership staff and a senior administration official about child care and both focused on accountability as the focal point for improvements in the system.

One significant difference between 2000 and today is the fiscal climate. Even in the face of an economic downtown in 2001, federal education spending rose significantly after and perhaps as a result of/in exchange for, reauthorization of ESEA. It is unlikely that a similar bargain can be made on CCDBG. The fiscal picture nationally is more dire today and the profile of child care is not as prominent as was or is K-12 education. Advocates are concerned that increased accountability without increased funding will harm rather than improve the system. My view is that there are some low-cost but significant ways Congress can improve accountability in the child care system without significant spending during this resource-constrained time.

It will be interesting to see if 2012-2013 turns out to be like 1998-2001 or not. Congress almost reauthorized CCDBG just after that last time period but just could not make enough progress. Good progress by parties of good will today can improve the system for the benefit of children and families.