Congress took important steps this week to create much-needed health and safety standards for publicly subsidized child care programs by reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG. This child care subsidy system was last updated 16 years ago during the Clinton administration. These changes represent a critical first move toward the development of a high-quality child care system that works for low-income, working families. When President Barack Obama signs the bill, standards that have long been accepted in other industries will finally be applied to the child care system in three key areas: background checks, training, and licensing and inspections.
Each week, 11 million children under age 5 spend time in the care of someone other than a parent. Among children under age 6, 65 percent have either a single parent or two parents in the labor force, making child care the daily reality for most families. For low-income, working families, finding accessible, high-quality, affordable child care can be a near-impossible task. These families are offered a vital opportunity through CCDBG, which gives states between $3 billion and $4 billion to subsidize child care expenses for low-income families. Although CCDBG has helped lower costs and improve access, the quality of child care has always lagged behind, largely due to a lack of funding, oversight, and incentives for states to invest funds in high-quality child care providers.
Under the new bill, child care staff members and prospective employees must undergo background checks in order for a state to receive CCDBG funding. Prior to reauthorization, only 13 states properly vetted child care center workers. Four states, including Georgia, did not even require child care providers to check employees against the child abuse and sex offender registry. To put this into perspective, Georgia does not require a fingerprint check for child care providers but does for massage therapists. Nebraska requires no criminal background check for child care providers but does require one for real estate agents. Parents should be able to leave their children with providers knowing that they are going to be safe. The new bill ensures this sense of safety through comprehensive background checks for those who have contact with children, including a fingerprint check against state and Federal Bureau of Investigation criminal records, the child abuse registry, and the sex offender registry.
The new provisions require ongoing training for providers that covers safe sleep practices, first aid, emergency preparedness, and the prevention of shaken baby syndrome. Although each state will set the minimum hours of training required, a simple comparison of existing state child care training requirements to those of other industries makes clear that a drastic improvement is needed. Child care is one of only a handful of industries that require virtually no employee training in most states. Sixteen states do not require a high school diploma or GED equivalent for a lead teacher in a child care center. The number of hours of training required to secure a child care license are alarmingly low, especially in comparison to other industries. In New York, for example, one must initially complete 1,000 hours of study and pass a written and a practical exam to be eligible for a cosmetology license, compared with 15 hours of initial training for a child care license. In California, 1,600 hours of technical study and practical training are required for cosmetologists, compared with just 15 hours of preventative health and safety training for child care providers.
Children, particularly infants and toddlers, are susceptible to an array of conditions—including sudden infant death syndrome—for which training is paramount for prevention. Allowing a provider who is untrained in important practices, such as safe sleep methods, to care for children can result in serious injury or death. Over the past decade, there were 43 child deaths in unregulated child care in Virginia alone, and most were related to sleep practices. The new bill combats this by compelling states to develop training requirements that are representative of current research and best practices around child development.
Licensing and inspections
This reauthorization also requires that both licensed and license-exempt child care settings be inspected at random at least once per year. Prior to this requirement, providers in some states could go five years or more without a single inspection. Although other states appeared to complete annual inspections, a high ratio of providers to inspectors made for unmanageable caseloads. Under the new bill, states must maintain an adequate level of inspectors to complete at least one inspection each year. States will also be required to publicize the results of these inspections, including any violations, on a user-friendly website.
While many parents looking for a child care provider might be fooled into thinking their provider is licensed, a number of unlicensed centers run with little to no oversight in many states. In Tennessee, for example, only a small margin of child care centers are actually licensed. Yet to operate a beauty salon in Tennessee, one must submit an application and pass initial inspections to ensure all requirements and safety standards are met. Similarly, a tattoo parlor must meet minimum standards, and all tattoo artists must be licensed. In the current child care system, however, parents often only find out about a history of health and safety violations after it is too late. This new provision helps bring the country closer to the system used in Oklahoma—a model of child care accountability—where child care centers are inspected at least four times per year, sometimes unannounced, by licensing, health, and fire safety personnel.
While this reauthorization marks a necessary step forward, minimum health and safety standards should not be the benchmark for child care programs. Policymakers must now create a high-quality, accessible child care system that promotes early learning and development to prepare children for school. This new bill increases authorized spending levels for CCDBG 16.5 percent over the next six years, but Congress must actually allocate those funds to grow the program, which currently only reaches one in six eligible children. The stakes of child care are higher than those of a haircut, a tattoo, or a house sale. The updates included in this legislation are long overdue and represent the minimum health and safety standards necessary for the child care industry. However, the nation’s children deserve more than just the minimum, and 16 years is a long time to wait. The reauthorization of CCDBG is a promising sign of a bipartisan commitment to creating a safe, high-quality, affordable child care system, but the country’s work toward this goal is far from over.
Maryam Adamu is a Research Assistant for the Early Childhood Policy team at the Center for American Progress.