Commentary: Clinton's Child Care Conference: Just Chatter?

In March, acting on a tip, county inspectors visited the Milwaukee home of Dana Jones. As an unlicensed child-care provider, Jones was allowed by state law to look after three kids under age 7. Yet the inspectors that day found at least 34 children, some playing outside, some in sleeping bags, and four babies unsupervised. One child was lying beneath a sink, apparently for punishment. Remarkably, though, Jones's operation, first exposed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wasn't shut down. In fact, she regained county certification within four months.

So it goes in the underfunded, barely regulated system that looks after 12 million children under age 6. By some accounts, a majority of American kids in day care spend hours in settings that lack appropriate educational stimulation, safety, and security. This when recent studies indicate intellectual and emotional capacities are shaped most in the first three years of life. "People basically are ignoring kids," says Anne Arneson, director of the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families.

SUPPLY SIDE. What to do in the face of such need? If you're in the White House, you host a conference. On Oct. 23, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton were set to host 130 legislators, care providers, and child-development experts, all of them ready to agree on why good child care matters and how to get people to pay for it.

Ah, good, another conference. When the Clintons host a confab, chances are that (a) the topic will compel, (b) the discussion will be sober, and (c) not much will come of it. This is social policy, Clinton style: Pick an issue beyond reproach, rebabble the obvious, and hope people forget about campaign finance for a while. Hard choices or financial commitments? Not likely.

There are two straightforward ways to fix the child-care mess, and both require a lot of money. We can reduce demand, limiting the damage that reckless caregivers cause to kids. Or we can expand and improve supply--putting 10 more child-care workers on Jones's block, training them thoroughly, paying them better, and holding them to strict child-to-caregiver ratios.

Of the two, cutting demand is the more politically tenuous. Heritage Foundation analyst Patrick Fagan advocates extending subsidies and tax credits to families when a parent chooses to look after kids at home. "It's bad policy to tilt things toward child care only for working mothers," he says. Such a plan could make a difference for some low-income couples, but payments would have to be massive to keep single parents at home.

As for fixing child-care supply, there are many models. Among the states, Florida has allocated $4 million to a pool that will match employers' subsidies to workers. Georgia has used lottery revenues to increase child-care and early-education funding to $255 million, from $37 million four years ago. Indiana has brought together county-based teams of businesses, educators, providers, and community groups to fund provider training.

But such programs, though growing, don't nearly meet the need. Some 20 states, for example, allow infant-to-caregiver ratios above the 4-to-1 recommended by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an accrediting group; Wisconsin, in fact, recently loosened its standard. Lowering the ratios would raise costs, as would mandating teacher training beyond the 8 to 15 hours common in many centers.

FIXING IT. Researchers estimate that meeting the Association's standards would cost up to $8,500 annually per child. Currently parents pay an average of $3,700 per child; through subsidies, tax credits, and the like, government chips in $1,000 on average. The funding gap--and overall need for day care--both likely will grow in the next five years as low-income mothers move off the welfare rolls. In all, the tab to right child care easily could top $10 billion a year.

To be fair, the Administration has some ideas about increasing federal subsidies to parents and businesses as well as creating scholarships for child-care researchers. "It doesn't take much to improve quality, and we don't need to invent a new system," Hillary Clinton told reporters on Oct. 22. But the First Lady was sugarcoating the problem: It will take a lot to improve the quality of the nation's child care and access to it. Most likely, she knows that Washington--like business and parents--hasn't the stomach for the big spending that true solutions require.

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