A few months ago, the Senate was focused on a bipartisan bill to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant. But last month, a group of a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives released their own, less sweeping child care reforms through the Infant and Toddler Care Improvement Act (H.R. 4680).

Infant and toddler child care, for children ages birth to 3, is an especially important–and often neglected–part of the care continuum. Nearly 30 percent of children who receive services under the federal child care subsidy program are under the age of 3. And as the bill notes, high-quality child care is critical for very young children, especially those at risk, like the children from low-income families that are eligible for federal subsidies. Yet about 30 percent of federal child care subsidy recipients under 3 are in home-based care settings that are often less regulated than center-based care options. And they spend a lot of time with their child care providers: On average, they spend a full day every weekday in child care, totaling about 160 hours per month.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and co-sponsored by a group of her fellow liberal lawmakers, would work to improve the quality of child care for kids under age 3 with new federal grants designated explicitly for that purpose.

States could use the funds for a couple purposes. First, they could make subgrants to organizations that provide child care and technical assistance to family care providers, perhaps through the establishment of statewide child care systems to train and improve the quality of family child care. Or they could create similar networks to benefit all infant and toddler care providers. The technical assistance might include better teacher training or visits to early care providers to make sure their care centers are up to snuff.

They might use the federal dollars to create new professional development systems for child care workers, or to establish career pathways for that workforce (the subject of a new study that would be funded under the recently introduced Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act). States could also funnel the money into improvements to their Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, promote better consumer information about infant and toddler care providers, or create new licensing regulations for child care workers.

The grants would be allocated in the same way as the Child Care and Development Block Grant funds currently are, with formula funding available to every state. But in a not-very-creative move–or perhaps in recognition that the bill isn’t likely to make much progress before the midterm elections anyway–the lawmakers didn’t include a specific dollar amount they have in mind to implement the bill.

In fact, there aren’t many specifics throughout the bill. Research suggests that the best return on investment for our child care dollars will come from high-quality settings in which care providers are trained to have language-rich interactions with the children. Especially for low-income children, those interactions are their best shot at overcoming the oft-cited ‘30 million word gap.’ Yet the Infant and Toddler Care Improvement Act includes no explicit mention of promoting or measuring teachers’ interactions with the children for whom they care.

Still, the bill addresses an important deficit. The quality of infant and toddler care systems is frequently uneven, if not downright bad. A little extra funding to help states build out and improve care for those children could ultimately make a big difference for a lot of little ones.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann