Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: “Child Care and Development Block Grant Program”

Posted on March 13, 2014

I thank the Senator from Washington for her comments and her leadership in the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well. She has been a consistent spokesman for children, especially for homeless children. 

              I want to make an observation about the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program that the Presiding Officer from New Jersey will especially find of interest because of his work with children and schools in New Jersey. We have heard this morning a great deal of support for the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act, which is a very remarkable piece of legislation in terms of the way it is structured, if we think about it. 

            It has been around for about 20 years, but it takes 5 to 6 billion federal dollars each year and gives it to states -- a block grant with a lot of flexibility. Then the money is distributed as vouchers to individual parents -- low-income women, mostly -- who then choose among thousands of certified child care centers. That, I would argue, while it was done 20 years ago, fits the Internet age. 

    Newt Gingrich -- and I have sometimes accused Newt of being Vesuvian in his qualities because he has such a steady flow of new ideas -- has done some very interesting work recently.  He quotes a computer programmer named Tim O'Reilly who made a suggestion for how the Internet could transform government. 

         Mr. O'Reilly said:  The best way for government to operate is to figure out what kinds of things are enablers of society and make investments in those things. The same way that Apple figured out, "If we turn the iPhone into a platform, outside developers will bring hundreds of thousands of applications to the table."

            In a way, the developers of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Program in the early 1990s, under the first President Bush, were ahead of their time because, rather than having a big, burdensome program run from Washington with lots of rules made here, we have a piece of legislation that survived for more than two decades and that helps 1.5 million children this year.

            It enables people such as the mother in Memphis I talked about on the floor yesterday who became eligible for a childcare voucher in Tennessee. She was at LeMoyne-Owen College studying for her business degree and was able to place her infant in a childcare center of her choice.  The state gave her $500 to $600 a month for a voucher -- infant care is more expensive.  She earned her degree and is now an assistant manager at Walmart. She now has a second child in the same childcare center -- but she can afford to pay for it herself.

            That is a perfect example of enabling her, using taxpayer money, to move up the economic ladder, to reach the American dream and succeed. Rather than making her do it or mandating her to do it, we enabled her to do it.

              We also do this -- and we have done it very successfully since World War II -- with college grants and loans, which also have virtually unanimous support in the Senate on both sides of the aisle. 

            Beginning with the GI bill for veterans in 1944, we have given vouchers to veterans, and those vouchers follow them to any educational institution of their choice. At the beginning, many of them went to high schools. Some of them went to colleges overseas.

            That was the beginning of our current system of federal government support for grants and loans, and now half of our college students have a federal grant or a loan to help pay for college.  All of those grants and loans follow them to the institution of their choice.  That is a lot of money.  It is over $100 billion in loans -- new loans -- every year. It is $33 billion in Pell grants each year. 

            We followed Tim O'Reilly's suggestion there as well. We haven't set up a lot of complicated Washington programs and managers. We have simply said this.  If you are eligible and go to an accredited institution -- whether it is public, private, for-profit, nonprofit, Yeshiva, Notre Dame or Rutgers -- the money will follow you to the college of your choice. That is what we have done since World War II with college students -- and since the era of George Walker Bush, with children -- we have given them tickets to the institutions of their choice. 

            But what have we done in the middle?  We have vouchers for college students and vouchers for very young children, but what about students who go to elementary school? And what about students who go to high school? Especially, what about students who are low-income students who are trapped in failing schools? Our childcare vouchers are for low-income parents, mainly women.  Our vouchers for college students are for low-income students. We call those Pell grants. But we give our K-12 money to the schools instead of allowing it to follow students to the schools of their choice. 

            I have always wondered, if we have had such success with the GI bill and the Pell grant and the student loan and the childcare voucher, why don't we try it with kindergarten through the 12th grade?  Many enterprising mayors and Governors have tried that, usually facing a lot of resistance from people who see something un-American about vouchers. It is not very un-American if it is the GI bill, not very un-American if it is a Pell grant, not very un-American if it is a childcare voucher, but something somehow is wrong with it if you are in third grade or the seventh grade or the ninth grade. 

            So I have introduced something called “Scholarships for Kids,” which is almost like the child care development block grant for students who are in elementary and secondary schools. It would take 80 federal education programs that spend about $24 billion a year and say to New Jersey or Tennessee or Iowa: You can take all that money, whatever your share of that is, and create a $2,100 scholarship for every single child in your state below the federal poverty level, and it can follow that child to whatever school in your state the child attends.

            If you live in a city or a state where you want the child to be able to go to any accredited institution, public or private, the way we do with Pell grants, you may do that.  If you believe that Federal dollars for elementary and secondary schools should only go to public schools, you may do that.  You may design the program however you want to do it in your state.  But the idea would be that we would enable low-income children, the ones who are below the federal poverty level -- and there are 11 million of those in our country -- we would allow you to pin $2,100 to their shirt to follow that child to school.  I think we know what would happen if we were to do that. Those children may need to be in school longer each day. They may need a meal. They may need to be there during vacation time.  They may need to be there in the summer. And if the teacher has the extra money and the freedom to use it, that gives that school more autonomy and that helps that child succeed.

            Does every school succeed at the same rate? No. Not every college succeeds at the same rate.  Not every childcare center succeeds at the same rate. But if we have 70 years of experience with colleges of creating autonomy and choice and letting the money follow the students to the school -- and people all around the world tell us we have the best system of colleges in the world -- why don't we try it with our schools? 

            I see the Senator from Oklahoma, and I will wind down so he can wind up.  I thank him for his contribution to the debate.

            While we are in the middle of so much testimony about what a great thing the child care development block grant is -- vouchers to little children who are poor -- and while we all believe Pell grants are a great idea -- vouchers to college students who are low income -- should we not think about doing exactly the same thing with elementary and secondary school students as a way to help them succeed?  And not as a federal mandate but simply giving Governors and state legislators and educators the opportunity to say:  Give us that share of our $24 billion. Give every one of our children who is below the Federal poverty level $2,100 each and let us decide how it follows them to the school they attend. 

            So I wanted to make that observation. And I am delighted to know the Senator from New Jersey is presiding today because of the work he has done in his state in that area.