The U.S. Senate has overwhelmingly passed bipartisan legislation that would reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. The federal program provides assistance to help low-income parents obtain subsidized child care, enabling them to work and support their families. Approximately, 1.5 million children are enrolled in CCDBG, including many thousands in the Orthodox Jewish community.
The Senate bill is especially noteworthy because of its firm endorsement of “parental choice” and its reaffirmation of the central, even preferred, role of the “child care certificate” (also known as a voucher) in the program.
First enacted in 1990, the child care law is considered landmark legislation. A guiding principle of the program is its emphasis on providing maximum “parental choice.” This was made possible primarily through the creation and implementation of the “child care certificate,” which provides a constitutionally permissible means of allowing parents to choose, among their options, religious child care programs — the overwhelming preference of Orthodox Jewish families.
Agudath Israel played an active and pivotal role in crafting and promoting the voucher program, and has continued to monitor it to help ensure its continued vitality.
“The importance of the ‘child care certificate’ cannot be overstated,” notes Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America’s Vice President for Federal Government Affairs and Washington Director. “It was the first, and remains the only, education-related voucher program on a national level, and is looked to as a model for other federal and state programs.”
The strong endorsement of “child care certificates” in the bill passed by the Senate is particularly meaningful in light of concerns over a recently proposed rule issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Reiterating a perspective it has expressed before, the agency – while stating that the “certificate” program will be maintained – asserted that these certificates were not intended to be given “priority or preference” as a method of funding child care services. The proposal was seen by many as having the potential to ultimately weaken the primary role played by vouchers in the federal child care program.
Responding to HHS’ proposal, in a comprehensive analysis of the history and intent of the child care law, Agudath Israel demonstrated that both Congress and HHS did indeed consider the voucher as the preferred method of providing this assistance, as it offered parents the widest range of options for their children. It pointed out that 90% of CCDBG assistance was provided through certificates.
Moreover, picking up on the momentum created at that time by the Senate’s concurrent consideration of CCDBG reauthorization, Agudath Israel worked with Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Senate HELP Committee Chairman, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), lead sponsor of the bill, to help craft Committee Report language on “parental choice,” which states that “Congress clearly intended to meet this objective by maximizing child care options through the introduction of the `child care certificate,’ which affords parents the flexibility to choose among the widest range of child care providers and services” including those religious in nature.
The point was finally driven home on the Senate floor itself. Agudath Israel and its allies in the Council for American Private Education helped draft and promote an amendment offered by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in the final stages of the process, while the bill was still being debated. The language of the amendment made clear that nothing in the CCDBG Act should be construed to “favor or promote the use of grants or contracts … over the use of certificates” or to “disfavor or discourage the use of such certificates for the purchase of child care services, including those services provided by… faith-based providers.” The amendment was quickly and unanimously adopted by voice vote.
“The vote in the Senate, which included the amendment on ‘child care certificates,’ should put a decisive end to any contention emanating from the federal government or elsewhere that certificates, which offer parents the option of using faith-based programs, are not the preeminent method of CCDBG funding,” noted Rabbi Cohen. “We were heartened by the many senators, particularly ‘parental choice’ champion and bill cosponsor, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who spoke up in favor of vouchers in the child care and other contexts. We hope it will be a harbinger for future legislation.”