Amidst the shameful dysfunctional legislative gridlock of the U.S. House of Representatives, it was a great joy this week to celebrate a time and a leader – former Minnesota Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale – when bipartisanship, common sense and a national moral commitment to children and families almost became the law of the land for young children. What a different country we would be today had millions of children received the carefully conceived high-quality early childhood and family support services in the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 which President Nixon vetoed on the eve of his trip to China, capitulating to right wing ideologues like Phyllis Schlafly and Patrick Buchanan.
In addition to mischaracterizations of the legislation's provisions, President Nixon attempted to portray day care and other child care services outside the home as a radical new departure, ignoring the millions of mothers already in the workforce. A plethora of child care legislation has been passed over the past four decades but programs are still available to only a fraction of the children and families who need them. The quality of care provided to our children in their early years through public and private means remains uneven, fragmented and often very inadequate, especially for the poorest children.
While none of the 1971 Act's supporters, I among them, believed it perfect, its approach represented a vast step forward from the child care system then and now in our country. The Act was a model of what bipartisan support can look like. It passed December 2, 1971 by a vote of 63 yeas to 17 nays in the United States Senate with 39 Democrats and 24 Republicans. Republican Senators Schweiker (PA) and Javits (NY) were lead cosponsors. Five days later, thanks to the leadership of Representative John Brademas (IN), the United States House of Representatives voted its approval, 211 to 187 with 180 Democrats and 31 Republicans.
This Act passed because of strong bipartisan leadership and the enthusiastic support and hard work of the most broad-based coalition assembled since enactment of the social legislation of the early 1960s. It included poverty, civil rights, children’s and women's groups across the income spectrum, labor unions, faith leaders, educators, community and citizen organizations. During committee hearings, the need for child development legislation was detailed by leading child advocates, developmental psychologists and pediatricians. Outside groups worked hand-in-hand with Senator Mondale’s staff in the drafting process. The Washington Post called the bill "as important a breakthrough for the young as Medicare was for the old," and described it as "a vehicle for a new national effort to make childhood livable.”
The Act was designed to begin to meet the developmental needs of all children, regardless of family income, by investing major new federal funds to establish high quality comprehensive programs with federal standards under a coordinated delivery system. It guaranteed parents decision-making roles in the operation and administration of the programs in which their children would be enrolled, building on the successful Head Start experience I had personally witnessed in Mississippi. And it expanded program eligibility by income, age groups and types of services to be offered. Its funding authorization the first year of $2 billion – equivalent to $11.3 billion today – is nearly $3 billion more than the 2014 Head Start funding level of $8.6 billion.
Although Senator Mondale introduced weaker versions of the 1971 bill soon thereafter, it took the Children’s Defense Fund Action Council working tirelessly with a broad coalition of early childhood, faith, civil rights and education groups 19 years to help gain enough momentum for enactment of the less comprehensive Child Care and Development Block Grant in 1990 which President George H.W. Bush signed after feared veto threats. As if yesterday, I remember going to the White House gates to help deliver boxes of letters collected by thousands of United Methodist Women urging President Bush to sign this much-needed child and family support bill to help working parents.
In 1971, 40 percent of mothers were in the workforce; today 70 percent are, including 64 percent with children under 6. In 2014, although 15.5 million children were poor, Head Start served fewer than half of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds and Early Head Start reached only 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers. Only 1 in 6 federally-eligible children receives a subsidy through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and enrollment numbers continue to decline as the cost of care increases. In 2012, the total combined federal and state child care funding under the Child Care Block Grant and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program fell to its lowest level since 2002. Center-based child care for an infant is more expensive than tuition at a public, 4-year college in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Fewer than half of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in any preschool program and even fewer are in high quality programs.
Since the 1971 Nixon veto and ongoing struggles to expand federal and state investments in quality early childhood development systems, we have learned much more about early brain development that makes an urgent case for investment in our youngest children to get them ready for school. A baby is born with a brain 25 percent of adult size. By age 5 a child’s brain has grown dramatically to 90 percent of adult size. During these years of rapid brain development children are learning from their environments and interactions with adults and developing a foundation for their future school and life success. Stresses associated with poverty can disrupt healthy development and leave poor children behind from the very beginning. High quality, comprehensive early childhood programs have been proven to buffer the impacts of poverty and provide lifelong benefits for children and their families.
Research and experience show that quality early childhood programs are one of the best investments the nation can make towards assuring better education and societal outcomes. Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates the return on investment of such programs at 7-10 percent per year. So why do so many members of Congress keep denying children the basic foundation they need to get ready for and do well in school and why do the parents – especially – and other adults of our nation stand for it? What kind of leaders think tax breaks for billionaires are more important than education gains for the majority of all our children of all races whose life chances will be stunted if they cannot read and compute at grade level. Our dropout rates are nation shaming and threatening. And what kind of voters tolerate the disgraceful dysfunctionality of ideologically driven self-serving Congressional representatives who continue to deny millions of voiceless children safety and quality care when parents work? Just think how many good jobs could be created by a high quality universal early childhood system.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Deep thanks to Senator Mondale and his co-sponsors in both parties and then House Education and Labor Chair John Brademas and his Republican co-sponsors who sought to put our nation’s children and families above partisan political gain. I hope we may see their likes again and an end to the ugly political grandstanding that denies children the basic supports they need to be ready for and achieve in school in our competitive global world.