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Why the GOP talking point about ‘government takeover’ of child care is wrong

PolitiFact | The Build Back Better bill includes nearly $400 billion to expand child care and fund universal pre-kindergarten. The Senate could vote on the legislation by Christmas.
Allison Hornbeck, VPK teacher, on left, talks with Angelo Celormy, center, and Dennasia Parker, right, as they work through an exercise during a preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Oct. 5 in St. Petersburg.
Allison Hornbeck, VPK teacher, on left, talks with Angelo Celormy, center, and Dennasia Parker, right, as they work through an exercise during a preschool class at the Lew Williams Center for Early Learning, 901 34th St. S, on Oct. 5 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 3, 2021|Updated Dec. 3, 2021

Democrats are hoping that the $1.75 trillion social spending plan that passed the House can win Senate approval by Christmas. But it continues to face universal opposition from Republicans, who have concerns about the price tag and certain provisions.

One of those provisions would spend nearly $400 billion to expand child care and fund universal prekindergarten.

During a marathon floor speech against the bill on Nov. 18, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the legislation, known as the Build Back Better Act, would represent a “government takeover of child care.”

Denouncing the child care provisions of the bill as a federal “takeover” has become a talking point among critics, including by some Republican senators and conservative groups.

The phrase “government takeover” of child care communicates the notion that the federal government would nationalize day care facilities, owning and directly running the industry. But that’s not what the bill calls for.

The bill does expand the federal government’s role in child care, not just providing more funding but also potentially establishing new restrictions on religious institutions that offer child care programs in exchange for federal support. States that want to participate will have to submit plans to the federal government that include how they will use the money to expand access to child care and improve the quality of child care providers.

However, states will oversee how the rules are implemented.

“States will be able to make a lot of the policy decisions and to design the program in response to the needs of families in their states,” said Hannah Matthews, deputy executive director for policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a group that supports the legislation. “The bill builds on the current federal-state partnership of our existing child care system.”

Backers of the child care expansion point out that the federal government has already been subsidizing child care for decades with little backlash.

“All 50 states have an existing child care program that is primarily funded using federal dollars, and 44 states and the District of Columbia fund pre-K programs,” said Lauren Hogan, managing director for policy and professional advancement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which supports the legislation.

Imposing a degree of federal regulation on child care facilities is not a government takeover, any more than it is for federal regulation of banks, airlines, or manufacturing companies. The government sets rules on all sorts of programs it funds.

And crucially, states don’t have to participate in the new program if they don’t want to. Nor do parents or child care facilities.

“Since states must opt in to both the child care and pre-K provisions, that defies any reasonable definition of a takeover,” said Elliot Haspel, author of a book about child care and a supporter of the provisions in the bill.

Critics may have legitimate concerns about the program’s structure and reach, but calling it a “government takeover” is a mischaracterization.

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Build Back Better includes child care subsidies for qualifying families

Democrats designed the bill to reduce the costs of child care for parents who are working or in school, making more subsidies available to middle-class parents.

Child care can cost around $10,000 a year for each child, depending on location and age. For families with multiple children in child care, and for low- and moderate-wage earners, child care costs can eat up a substantial portion of their income. While there are existing federal programs to help eligible parents pay for day care, those are intended for low-income earners.

If the bill passes this year, the child care provisions could start in 2022, ramping up to full enactment over three years. The preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds would be free, and eligible parents who need to pay for extended hours of care could get a subsidy.

For younger children, parents would pay no more than 7 percent of their family income, a provision that would cover nearly all families earning up to $300,000, according to Democrats’ calculations. And families who earn 75 percent or less of their state’s median income could send their children for free.

In exchange for increased federal funding, the bill requires child care centers to pay “adequate” wages, in order to drive up supply of child care workers to meet demand. The amount of the wage is left undefined in the bill. “States will determine payment rates that allow for the provision of such wages,” Matthews said.

In all, the bill is meant to give parents the ability to choose the child care that fits their needs, said Karen Schulman, director of state child care policy at the National Women’s Law Center, a group that supports the legislation.

“Certificates are issued to parents, and they can use the provider of their choice, which may include a center, family child care home, or faith-based provider,” Schulman said.

Questions about rules for religious facilities

How the bill affects day care provided by religious institutions is a centerpiece of the debate over Build Back Better.

As evidence for the claim that the bill is a “government takeover of child care,” McCarthy spokesperson Michele Exner cited the portion of the bill that would require states to submit applications for funding to the secretary of health and human services.

“By design, this will hand over control to the federal government to decide who does and does not qualify for the funding, which will include discriminating against faith-based centers,” Exner said.

But while there are questions about how religious day care facilities would fit in with the new programs, that doesn’t mean that the federal government is taking over the industry.

The legislation includes explicit language that allows parents to choose from a variety of day care options, including those offered at centers, homes, or religious institutions such as churches or synagogues. “Nothing in this section shall preclude the use of such certificates for sectarian child care services if freely chosen by the parent,” the bill states.

Some religious groups argue that this language is not sufficient, due to the inclusion of other provisions, such as one that says federal grants to remodel facilities may not be used for “buildings or facilities that are used primarily for sectarian instruction or religious worship.” This policy would keep the government from funding purely religious efforts and spaces, while allowing a day care center at a church to get remodeling money to expand classrooms.

Religious groups and conservatives have raised concerns that this may prevent them from accessing the new federal money, but exactly how this standard would be applied remains to be seen. The bill would also require compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws.

Another concern raised by some religious groups is that requirements to follow nondiscrimination laws could impede their ability to receive the new federal funding. They argue that religious entities would need to choose between adhering to their religious principles and accepting the new federal funds. This would mark a break from existing federal subsidy programs for child care: block grants for child care do not currently enforce such compliance. (A few religious organizations are among the groups that wrote a letter to Democratic leaders in support of the child care programs.)

For example, the bill requires compliance with Title IX, the law that bans gender discrimination. Nathan Diament, executive director for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, a Jewish group, said he’s asked whether that means that a synagogue-based day care center could not have separate classrooms for boys and girls. He said he hasn’t gotten an answer.

“We want the currently existing rules that govern federally supported child care” through block grant programs, Diament said.

Diament said other questions remain, such as whether a religious day care could give preference to members of its own congregation for slots, and whether it could include lessons about religious holidays. Orthodox day care centers have participated in existing state or federally supported day care programs, and despite their concerns, they don’t want to torpedo the bill, Diament said.

“We want to be supportive of this but we need these issues to be clarified and resolved properly so that we can be supportive of the bill,” he said.

Collectively, critics argue, these concerns could mean that religious organizations are squeezed out of the child care sector. The major influx of money into the sector could have impacts on those who don’t take the new federal funds, but to what extent religious entities could be impacted is currently unknown.

Reasons why the bill falls short of a ‘takeover’

The debate over the bill’s impact on religious organizations will likely go to the courts if the measure passes. It’s also possible that the Senate could rewrite these sections to provide more clarity or greater deference to religious organizations before the bill is enacted.

Beyond the concerns over religious matters, however, backers of the bill point to several reasons why the “takeover” argument is undercut by other elements.

For starters, the federal government is leaving most of the decision-making to states.

“States will operate child care assistance programs, set child care licensing requirements and standards and monitor for compliance with standards,” Matthews said. “They will make decisions about how to invest in quality improvement, raise wages for providers, and build the supply of child care.”

By the end of a phase-in period, the bill says, child care providers that receive subsidies through the new program need to be “licensed to provide child care services under state law” and to participate “in the state’s tiered system for measuring the quality of child care providers.” Such requirements, Schulman said, “are aimed at protecting children’s basic health and safety and giving providers opportunities to improve quality.”

By contrast, there is nothing in the bill that “gives the federal government any authority to dictate programs’ specific curricular choices, Haspel said.

The notion of the federal government funding child care or preschool education is hardly a new one, and it typically hasn’t prompted ideological objections.

Head Start, a federally funded early learning program for low-income children, has been operating since 1965. Some states or cities have chosen to offer free preschool on their own.

In his 2020 State of the Union address, then-President Donald Trump boasted that he had “overseen historic funding increases for high-quality child care.” In 2018, Congress approved an increase of $2.37 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides federal funding to benefit low-income families. Trump, who had originally proposed cutting the program, signed the increase into law. Congress boosted the program by about $550 million in the 2020 appropriations bill.

Our ruling

McCarthy said the Build Back Better Act would represent a “government takeover of child care.”

The bill does expand the federal government’s role in child care, including potential new restrictions on religious institutions that take the new federal funds for child care programs. But calling it a “government takeover” is a mischaracterization.

The bill puts states — not the federal government — primarily in charge of overseeing the effort, and nothing in the law suggests that government officials will micromanage curricula, staffing, or other key features. In addition, the federal government has long been involved in funding child care and pre-kindergarten, through block grants and Head Start.

Perhaps most importantly, neither states, child care centers nor parents are forced to accept the new federal funding, which means that it lacks the mandatory nature of a “takeover.”

We rate the statement False.

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