The bipartisan measure would change a federal block grant program to expand access to federally subsidized child care and improve its quality. About 1.6 million children use federal subsidies to attend day-care programs at about 500,000 different centres and home-based providers.
The bill would require providers to meet a range of health and safety standards, including first aid, CPR and prevention of child abuse and sudden infant death syndrome. The bill also would require annual inspections of licensed programs and require that day-care centres be inspected before they are opened.
Most states require inspections of licensed day-care programs, as well as some type of employee training, but standards vary widely. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia require one or more inspections a year, but some states, such as California, only require inspections once every five years, according to a 2013 report by Child Care Aware of America, an advocacy group.
Other states, such as Idaho and Vermont, do not require regular inspections, the report said.
Supporters said the bill would set national standards that ensure federally subsidized programs are safe and effective. If signed into law, the measure would give parents peace of mind, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the bill's chief sponsor.
"When they come to a child-care provider, they will know their provider will be trained, their child's environment will be safe and the whole program will be able to help make their kids learning-ready," Mikulski said Wednesday as debate on the bill began.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the bill would "go a long way toward improving child care in this country," adding that for many low-income parents, federally subsidized child care "is the difference between families being able to keep a job and being on 100 per cent (federal) assistance."
The measure would authorize $13.1 billion over five years for child-care programs, an increase of about $1.3 billion over current spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
A final vote on the bill is expected Thursday.
If approved, the measure would go the House. No timetable for House action has been set. ___
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