When affordable child care lost the vote

The year 1971 was slated to become a seminal year for supporters of affordable child care. Advocates concerned about meeting the needs of working parents and ensuring the benefits of early childhood education had long lobbied Congress to take up their cause, and the dream was within reach.

The Senate and the House of Representatives both approved a Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which mandated the right of all children to be given child care with a priority to those in economic, social or family need. The bill included federal standards for quality control, staff training and securing facilities. The fee for service would be on a sliding scale according to income.

President Richard M. Nixon was on record as supporting a federal role in child care. The passage of this bill would permit mothers, especially those heading single-parent households, to seek employment.

It was a time of great optimism, which soon faded as Nixon vetoed the legislation under pressure from his conservative constituents. Nixon's change of heart dashed the hopes of advocates and families who were unable to either find or afford adequate services.

His veto continues to have vast ramifications in the kind, type and accountability of services provided for children in this country.

At the time of Nixon's veto, I was completing an undergraduate degree with a specialization in children's literature and a credential to teach reading at San Francisco State University. As a student teacher, I spent hours observing classrooms and substitute teaching in San Francisco's long-standing Child Development Program, which had been established in 1943.

This program was much like that mandated under the Comprehensive Childcare Bill. The department was opened during the World War II when women worked around the clock in factories to support the war effort. Twenty-four hour day care was necessary for these brave "Rosie the Riveters," who proved middle-class women were fully capable of working outside of the home.

Other parts of the country had similar programs, which were closed when the war ended.

Yet the San Francisco programs have continued to grow. Teachers at these centers are qualified and credentialed experts in early childhood education. They meet health and safety standards required of all schools and reflect the diverse populations of that city.

Working with and observing these programs was a wonderful opportunity and illustrated how outstanding early childhood programs served communities and could do the same if similar programs were in place countrywide.

A federally funded grant I worked under in New York exposed me to the ramifications of what can happen in unregulated day care. The grant to train and evaluate programs was headed by the late Dr. Martin Deutsch, a professor at New York University. He was well known as the father of Head Start, which evolved from the programs he developed in Harlem during the early 1960s.

Head Start programs continue to thrive and are federally funded. These centers have accredited teachers, assistant teachers and class size restricted to 15 students. The children are exposed to a range of literature, music and the arts.

A goal of our grant was to translate many of Head Start's successes into the non-regulated programs.

Happily, some of these child-care centers stand out in memory as outstanding. In particular, the Haitian American Day Care Center, had a cohesive program, was spotless, with a top-flight administrative staff. Although many of the teachers were not certified in this country, they had the necessary accreditation from Haiti.

The program was bilingual, administered in English and Haitian Creole. When children grew too old to attend the day care center, they passed on to a local elementary school with a similar mission.

When the school day ended, it was back to the Haitian American Childcare Center for after school and homework assistance. The children in this program certainly could not have been better served.

At the opposite end were several child care centers that were a disaster. One with an infant care program that had tiny babies placed in cribs all day while teacher's aides watched game shows and soap operas. The ceiling tiles in this particular center were never replaced, and water dripped on the floor from the leaky pipes. Books were so scarce and torn children had little or nothing to read.

This administration was negligent; one can only imagine how a different situation with high and established standards might have made proficient advocates and teachers out of the staff.

The sad fact is the knowledge of how to establish outstanding early childhood programs is available. Developing the prerequisite skills for later successful schooling have been thoroughly researched and can be successfully implemented.

The results of comprehensive research have documented pre-reading strategies that would alleviate much of the frustration students face in elementary school, which, if not attended to, can translate into a lifetime of functional illiteracy.

Yet the funding to create and sustain such programs (and the oversight necessary for their success) has not materialized.

Nixon's veto of the Comprehensive Childcare Act in 1971 was a disaster, particularly for those in the middle-class who do not qualify for federally supported childcare.

Barbara Beatty, chairperson of the education department at Wellesley College, laments, "Time's a wasting for 3- and 4- year olds despite bipartisan support from broad-based coalitions of stakeholders from public and private sectors."

A high-quality early childhood system building on Head Start that serves all parents and all children would have untold benefits.

Middle-class families with two working parents are left in the lurch, having to spend exorbitant fees for childcare. Perhaps it is now the right time to look toward San Francisco and how it has managed to keep outstanding early childhood programs within the school district for more than 60 years.

Of course, as is often lamented, children do not vote, are not a priority and have minimal clout on the Beltway.

It took more than 100 years to have kindergartens attached to public schools; perhaps the time of subsidized child care is on the horizon.

For the sake of children and parents, I hope that horizon is not long in coming.