Early Childhood Education
Act for Better Child Care (ABC)
The Act for Better Child Care (the ABC bill) was introduced to Congress in November 1987 as the result of efforts by the Alliance for Better Child Care, a coalition that eventually included over 130 national groups. The goal of the bill was to improve the availability, affordability, and quality of child care by providing new federal funds to states. This bill was eventually revised and renamed, culminating in the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The history of the ABC bill describes a critical period in the history of early childhood education in the United States and the influence of coordinated advocacy efforts.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon had vetoed comprehensive child-care legislation that had passed the House and Senate with broad bipartisan support, thereby putting a chill on the child-care debate at the federal level for almost 15 years. The issue began to regain currency in 1984 when Representative George Miller (Democrat from California) selected child care as the first priority issue for his new Select Committee on Children and Youth. The Committee held a series of hearings and issued a report on child care. During the late 1980s, interest in child care skyrocketed. Mothers had gone to work in record numbers but childcare policy lagged behind. By 1986, the huge gap between women’s labor force participation and public investments in child care had generated significant and continuous press attention, which helped to finally force the issue to the top of the Congressional agenda. That year, the Children’s Defense Fund and a host of national organizations representing children, child-care providers, labor unions, religious groups, educators, women, and others joined together to begin a process that resulted in the Act for Better Child Care.
These efforts were fueled by the belief that if a child-care bill was moving in Congress prior to the 1988 presidential election, child care could become a top issue in the presidential campaign debate. The coalition sought to draw enough attention to the issue to ensure that a bill would be enacted during the first year of a new president’s term.
In the summer of 1986, a steering committee began a year-long process of working with representatives of national organizations and early childhood advocates across the country to develop a child-care bill. The original bill provided child-care assistance to families earning up to 115 percent of their state’s median income. Funds were also targeted to improve the quality and expand the supply of child care. The bill authorized $2.5 billion annually to be sent to states based on a formula that factored in the number of young children, state per capita income and number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunch. States could use the funds to offer parents certificates to purchase child care or for contracts with providers. In addition, a percentage of funds was reserved to help part-day preschool programs provide full-day, full-year services. Providers receiving funds were required to meet federal standards that would be developed by an advisory committee.
On November 19,1987, a joint House Senate press conference was held to introduce the ABC bill, which had 126 Representatives and 22 Senators as cosponsors. The lead cosponsors of the Senate bill were Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Senator John Chafee (R-RI). The House version was cosponsored by Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Representative Olympia Snowe (R-ME). Congress debated the bill during 1988 and child care indeed became a prominent issue in the presidential election campaign with both candidates supporting an expanded Federal role in child care. In January 1989, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) asked to replace Senator John Chafee as the Senate bill’s chief Republican cosponsor and became a strong advocate for the bill’s passage.
As debates over the bill proceeded, President George Bush supported using tax credits as opposed to providing direct child-care subsidies to families. The Democrats who controlled both the Senate and House took advantage of the Administration’s willingness to extend tax credits for low-income families and added an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to the ABC bill before it was brought to the Senate floor for a vote.
The ABC bill passed the Senate in June 1989. It passed the House in October 1989 but because of budget technicalities, had to pass the House again in March 1990. Congress was scheduled to adjourn in October 1990.
That fall, an unusual conference took place. The Senate worked out a compromise bill with the White House. These discussions did not include the House because of jurisdictional conflicts between various House committees. The Senate and White House announced their agreement on a compromise bill during a press conference that included Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) and Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), as well as the key Senate sponsors of the bill, Senators Dodd, Kennedy, and Hatch. The Senate then met with the House to reconcile any remaining differences. On November 5, President Bush signed a Budget Reconciliation bill that included the ABC bill, renamed the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and authorized $750 million in fiscal year 1991, $825 million in fiscal year 1992, $925 million in fiscal year 1993, and such sums as necessary for fiscal years 1994 and 1995 for child-care assistance to low-income working families and to improve the quality and expand the supply of child care. It also included a small additional program, the “At-Risk Child Care Program.” This program guaranteed states $1.5 billion over five years to help low-income working families, who were at risk of being on welfare, pay for child care. In addition, the bill provided for $12.4 billion over five years to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit for working families with children under age 19, as well as a very small Supplemental Credit for Infants costing $700 million over five years.
Federal standards were extremely controversial, and were eliminated early in the process. When the bill went to the Senate floor for a vote in June 1989, the standards were replaced by state standards because Senate leaders believed that federal standards would have led to a filibuster on the Senate floor and that they would not have the 60 votes necessary for cloture to end the filibuster. The final standards that were the product of negotiation with the Senate and the Bush White House required that programs had to meet applicable state child-care licensing or registration requirements. Providers that were not required to be regulated by the state had to meet very minimal health and safety standards, with the exception of certain relatives. The bulk of funds were reserved for child-care assistance. Families earning up to 75 percent of their state’s median income were eligible for help. States had to offer parents the choice of a certificate or contract to purchase child care. Twenty-five percent of total funding was reserved for quality improvements and initiatives targeted to early childhood development and before-and after-school child care.
While many compromises were made along the way, advocates were heartened by the results as the process led to the first comprehensive federal child-care program and also a major expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. This not only helped low-income parents but also countless child-care providers whose incomes were low enough to qualify them for the EITC.
The battle for a federal child-care program was successful in large part because of a strong grassroots campaign that was driven by the child-care community with support from labor, children’s organizations, women’s groups, religious organizations, state and local elected officials and many others. It happened without the assistance of e-mail and fax machines and involved countless mailings and phone calls. The campaign was kicked off by meetings in almost 40 states that brought together a coalition of groups that were spearheading their state’s efforts to win passage of the bill. The next several years were focused on ongoing communications with these state coalitions urging them to contact their members of Congress both through letters and phone calls and visits, write letters to the editors and op-eds, visit their editorial boards, and participate in various events and projects to build support for the bill. Governors, state legislators, mayors, religious, and business leaders also supported the legislation and appeared at a series of events. In addition there were targeted media efforts involving editorial memorandum, briefings for reporters in Washington, radio actualities, radio public service announcements, op-eds, letters to the editor, a significant number of press conferences, and paid media.
Advocates strongly believed that if a child-care bill was not enacted into law by the time the Congress adjourned in the fall of 1990, it would be almost impossible to sustain momentum on this issue through another session of Congress. They planned a series of activities to be staged in September. Findings from a Children’s Defense Fund report about shortcomings in state child-care licensing provisions and other gaps in quality were released right after Labor Day. The report generated hundreds of stories. Miles of paper chains were put together by the grassroots network across the country and were sent to Washington. Staff working for members of the alliance stretched the chains from the Capitol steps to the White House in mid-September. Members of Congress then attached the chains to their doors. Mothers whose children died or were injured in child care also held a September press conference in the Capitol and fanned out to visit their members of Congress to urge them to finish work on the ABC bill.
The extraordinary efforts of thousands of child-care advocates, parents, and public officials made child care a must win issue for the Congress and the Bush Administration. The Act for Better Child Care remains as a source of inspiration for child-care advocates and early childhood education professionals.
Further Readings: Cohen, Sally S. (2001). Championing child care. New York: Columbia University Press.