Political commentators may have spoken too soon about the “do-nothing Congress.” There’s been a veritable torrent of education-related legislative activity this summer, and lawmakers wrapped up that work today with an easy ‘yes’ vote in the House on the carefully negotiated Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) reauthorization bill.

The Senate passed a version of CCDBG back in March, and then sent it to the House. There’s been a quiet standoff since then, with the House insisting it wouldn’t consider the CCDBG bill until the Senate agreed to take up the Strengthening Education through Research Act, which the House passed in May. Finally, last week, House and Senate education leaders reached an agreement that would move both bills forward, so quickly that the House voted tonight to pass the bill. It’s a big win for the child care law, which hasn’t seen a comprehensive reauthorization since 1996–three presidents ago.

It’s a big win for the child care law, which hasn’t seen a comprehensive reauthorization since 1996–three presidents ago.

The new version of the law, although far from perfect, would unquestionably mean much-improved child care opportunities for low-income families. Arguably the new CCDBG’s greatest strength is that it would allow for higher-quality care for children and it would grant parents the opportunity to find and sustain employment.

Two changes in particular would make a big difference for parents: redetermination periods and reimbursement rates. As is, states (and sometimes localities) set their own time periods for redetermining parents’ eligibility for the child care subsidies. The new law would create a minimum 12-month eligibility period, so parents of young children remain eligible for a year, no matter changes in their work circumstances. That creates big barriers in the form of completing reams of paperwork, juggling schedules, and potentially losing access to care, even mid-job search, for families in the nearly half of states that confirm parents’ eligibility every six months.

When it comes to reimbursement rates, right now providers often aren’t compensated for a child care slot if that child is absent. The new CCDBG bill asks that states reimburse even for missed days, “to the extent practicable.” That way, kids who get sick or parents who need to change their schedules–and their child care providers who might miss out on a day of payments if a child is absent–aren’t punished for missing a few days in the classroom. But since the provision doesn’t mandate it, it’s questionable whether states will even take this on in any serious way. Those policies are already wildly inconsistent across states, and Congress’s encouragement rarely means much if it’s backed up by neither a carrot nor a stick.

Aside from those critical logistical changes that might improve families’ experiences dramatically, the CCDBG bill makes other changes that would increase the quality of care most children get, too. First, there are lots of new safety requirements, including–for the first time–mandatory annual fire, health, and safety inspections for unlicensed child care providers. (Many states allow providers to operate legally without a license; for example, as of 2012, 27 states didn’t require a license if the provider cared for fewer than four children, and 17 states allowed some form of an exemption for religiously operated child care.) That could be a big deal for the 17 percent of CCDBG recipients who spend their day in the care of license-exempt providers. Inspections of licensed providers would be subject to the same annual fire, health, and safety inspections; a pre-licensure inspection; plus a host of other metrics, which are mostly to be determined by the states to match the state licensing requirements.

And although the requirements are pretty weak, the House CCDBG bill includes a previously unseen focus on behavior-related issues. States would have to publish their policies related to expulsions of preschool-aged kids; and they could elect to use some of their quality-improvement funds to give better training to providers around behavioral issues. It’s far from the kind of arm-twisting that makes states take notice. But it does start to address some concerning data released earlier this year by the Department of Education showing racial inequities in suspensions and expulsions even for 3- and 4-year-olds. And as my colleague Laura Bornfreund has been noting for years, discipline of that type is particularly ineffective for such young children–so training around these issues could help providers understand better methods of managing children’s behavior and stop relying on suspensions or expulsions.

In a twist from the past few years of sequestration and budget cuts, the House promised some new money to implement the law. Funded at just shy of $2.4 billion for the current fiscal year (plus another $2.9 billion in mandatory funding), the House authorizations would set funding at the same level next year, then phase in increasing amounts up to $2.7 billion in 2020 — an increase of about $400 million over the next six years.

Of course, that’s probably not enough for states to increase quality as much as the feds hope they will without bearing substantial new costs themselves. Currently, states are required to set aside just 4 percent of funds for quality improvement activities like implementing a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to rate providers or conducting training activities (more for fiscal year 2014, per the 2014 funding bill). The new set-aside will phase in over the next five years to 9 percent–hardly an impressive-enough amount to cover the costs of all the increased quality improvements. Another 3 percent of funds each year are reserved explicitly for quality improvement in infant- and toddler-care programs.

This new CCDBG bill, which has bipartisan support, leaves most of the specifics about child care quality standards in the hands of the states.

Finally, the House hopes to have the government start evaluating its own investments. The GAO is required to publish a report every two years assessing how many families have been placed on waiting lists for CCDBG vouchers. And the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the CCDBG programs, together with the Department of Education, have a year to evaluate all early childhood programs (for children under the age of 6) across the federal government and make suggestions to reduce overlap in programs.

The original version of CCDBG, was reauthorized nearly two decades ago with details on federal financing but very minimal safety and quality requirements. This new CCDBG bill, which has bipartisan support, leaves most of the specifics about child care quality standards in the hands of the states, which could make for uneven opportunities for children in different states. But it significantly ups the minimum requirements, so that the 1.5 million children who receive care through the program–and their families–will have better opportunities to be cared for, to learn, and to work.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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