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Obama Takes on the Hell of American Day Care

New regulations could help keep kids safe

Marco Di Lauro/Stringer/Getty Images

Childcare in the U.S. is frequently mediocre, sometimes awful, and very occasionally deadly. If you read my recent article, “The Hell of American Day Care,” then you know all about this—and you have some sense of why such conditions prevail. Among the reasons: States have primary responsibility for childcare. And many states do a lousy job.

But the federal government isn't powerless to fix the problem. Through the Child Care and Development Fund, it provides most of the money that states use to subsidize childcare for low-income parents. That subsidy gives officials in Washington some leverage: They can insist that any state or any provider using federal funds live up to federal standards.

Officials haven't really used the leverage before: The last time the Department of Health and Human Services issued safety and quality regulations for childcare was 1998, shortly after legislation created the Fund. Those standards were minimal, creating the loose regulatory environment in which so many shoddy child care providers can operate.  

But change may be coming, thanks to the Obama Administration. On Thursday, HHS officials announced that they were formally proposing a new, stricter set of regulations on childcare. Some of the regulations would establish a national baseline of quality standards—like making sure every caregiver has CPR training and gets a full background check, using fingerprints. Other regulations would require states to collect and post more information about childcare providers on the internet, so that parents can determine for themselves which ones are likely to take the best care of their kids.

Another set of regulations would require states to ease the administrative hassle of signing up for childcare vouchers—and then staying on the program. If you want to know why that’s important, you should read Brigid Schulte’s story in Thursday’s Washington Post, about the difficulty low-income parents face when trying to get child care assistance. 

The rules about quality and safety would apply only to providers watching over children whose parents are using the federal subsidies. That’s about 1.6 million children in all, according to HHS officials. But the impact would actually be much broader than that, since even children whose families aren’t using the vouchers would benefit from the stronger standards. “Potentially we could be affecting care for millions of kids,” Shannon Rudisill, director of the HHS Office of Child Care, said in a telephone interview. “If a provider has CPR training, it benefits all the kids in the center or home, not just the one with the subsidy.”

Today, standards vary wildly from state to state. And even within states, standards may vary depending on the size or type of provider: Smaller, at-home providers are frequently subject to much less rigorous requirements. “I think we really want to say that tons of providers are doing a good job, meeting or exceeding licensing requirements, but we know there are federal funds going to far too many providers where they don’t meet those standards,” Rudisill said. “This is an effort to change that.”

How much difference will it make? I put that question to Grace Reef, chief of policy and evaluation at ChildCare Aware, who follows this issue as closely as anybody. Every year, ChildCare Aware publishes a national survey of state regulations—the only such publication, as far as I know. While 30 states already use fingerprints for background checks, she said, only thirteen check those fingerprints against the full array of federal and state registries for criminals and sex offenders, as the regulations would require. And only nine states require that all childcare workers have CPR training. Reef hadn’t had time to analyze the new proposal in detail, she told me, but based on the broad outlines she thought it was “hugely significant.”

Of course, these standards can do only so much. Making decent childcare available to all families who need it would require even stronger regulations, particularly when it comes to the education of caregivers. It would also require devoting more money to childcare, both to meet those higher standards and to help all of the families that need it. President Obama’s pre-kindergarten proposal, for instance, would cost about $75 billion over ten years, and that would mostly go to three- and four-year-olds. Timothy Bartik, senior economist at the Upton Institute for Employment, has estimated that a truly comprehensive program—one that covered all children younger than five, giving them access to the highest quality care—would cost around $100 billion a year in total government funding.

With Republicans determined to reduce spending on early childhood care, rather than increase it, the chances of any significant investment passing Congress are slim. But there are some things the Administration can do on its own, without Congressional approval and without a lot of money. Establishing moderately better standards for childcare is one of them.

Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow Jonathan on twitter @CitizenCohn