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Questions to ask the Next HHS Secretary about Child Care and Early Learning

President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Health and Human Services will oversee the administration’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic at a critical moment in turning the tide of the crisis. While this role might be forefront in the minds of many, the secretary will also oversee the Administration for Children and Families, or ACF, which includes more than 60 programs and a budget of more than $58 billion, making it the second largest agency at the Department of Health and Human Services. This budget also makes ACF larger than the Departments of Justice, Interior, and the Treasury.

ACF partners with states and communities to offer critical assistance to families, youth, and children, including by administering programs such as the Child Care and Development Fund, Head Start, Preschool Development Grant, and Maternal Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program; supporting Native American families and communities; and preventing child abuse and neglect.

As the Senate Finance Committee and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee consider Mr. Xavier Becerra to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, the Early Childhood Initiative proposes the following questions.

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  1. Inner-Agency Priorities. As the next Secretary of Health and Human Services, you will oversee the handling of the continued response to the ongoing public health crisis that has consumed our nation for nearly a year. You will also oversee the Administration for Children and Families, which includes over 60 programs and a budget of more than $58 billion, making it the second largest agency at the Department of Health and Human Services. ACF partners with states and communities to offer critical assistance to vulnerable parents and young children, and helps families achieve prosperity and independence. If you are confirmed, what will you do to elevate the important work of this agency, and what are your goals for the programs under ACF during your tenure?

  2. Long-Term Reforms. Mr. Becerra, through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, our nation provides child care subsidies to low-income parents to help them access and afford child care. While essential, this focus on supporting parents, or the demand-side of the child care industry, ignores the challenges that child care providers, or the supply side, face at running a successful business. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the challenges child care businesses face in running a profitable business, paying staff living wages, and making necessary quality improvements. Over the last year, Congress has recognized the need to provide support directly to child care providers to help stabilize the industry, and most states have used emergency funding to offer grants to providers. Mr. Becerra, recognizing the importance of increasing the number of families who receive subsidies, do you also believe that we must begin looking at the “supply side” of the child care equation to better support child care businesses, and if so, what is the best way for Congress to implement these changes?

  3. Expanding the Child Care and Development Block Grant. The Child Care and Development Block Grant is our nation’s largest source of direct child care support for low-income, working parents. This program helps families access and afford child care so that they can remain employed, attend an educational program, or look for a job to support their family. However, it only serves a fraction of eligible children each year and does not cover the true cost of providing care. Will you pledge to work with Congress to ensure more working parents and their children have access to a child care subsidy through CCDBG?

  4. Child Care Facilities. High-quality early learning settings are the basis for a strong foundation for social, emotional, and cognitive health of our nation’s youngest children. However, many child care facilities do not meet basic health and safety standards that are established under federal law, and need repairs, renovations, and ongoing investments. In fact, an investigation across ten states by the Department Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General found that 96% of child care programs receiving Child Care and Development Fund dollars had at least one potentially hazardous condition, such as broken gates and water damage. However, no national assessment has ever been conducted. Will you commit to conducting a national assessment of the nation’s child care facilities so that we can better understand the scope of the health and safety risks to our children and educators, alike?

    The national facilities children’s network estimates it will cost $12 billion to bring child care facilities up to quality standards. Would you support the creation of a federal grant program whose primary purpose would be to assist in the new building, expansion, and renovation of child care facilities?

  5. COVID-19 Relief and Recovery. As the incoming Secretary of HHS at the height of a global pandemic, it will be imperative for you to balance addressing the urgent needs of our ongoing public health crisis and ensure that our nation’s children and families are provided the necessary supports they require to recover from both the economic and epidemiological challenges of the last year and a half. We are also battling parallel crises of unemployment, the loss of women from the workforce, and mental health issues and substance abuse on the rise. In your opinion, how important is access to affordable, quality child care to addressing some of these issues as our country seeks to recover and what other programs under the purview HHS should be elevated, as well?

  6. Long-Term Reforms. Child care programs operated on razor-thin margins before the COVID-19 pandemic, and federal funding did not come close to meeting the need of families under the Child Care and Development Block Grant. During the last year, Congress has rightly been focused on how to sustain the child care industry throughout the pandemic, to make sure providers could remain in business and ultimately reopen safely. Even though the crisis is far from over, we must also begin to consider how to build a better child system for the long-term, one that better meets the needs of working parents and providers alike. What is your vision for reforming the child care system to be more reflective of what parents desire, and to better help child care providers?

  7. Family Child Care. Family child care is a vital component of parent choice in the child care market, providing learning environments in residential settings to small groups of children. As businesses reopen across the country, more parents are preferring family child care providers as a smaller, trusted environment for their children. Unfortunately, since 2008, there has been a 22% decline in the number of family child care programs around the country. This has been attributed to myriad factors including low profit margins, an aging workforce, and barriers to accessing resources and support systems that increase business stability and program quality. Policymakers seeking to address the challenges family child care programs face can support these programs by leveraging family child care networks that offer quality improvement services and business supports including technical assistance, training, peer support, and small business expertise delivered by paid staff. Mr. Becerra, would you support the expansion of family child care networks to ensure that more family child care programs can open and operate, to better serve our nation’s families?

  8. Oversight. On February 3, the Administration for Children and Families at HHS allocated nearly $10 billion in supplemental Child Care and Development Fund awards to states, territories, and Tribes to address the ongoing needs of child care providers and families resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Funds can be used for a range of activities, including to help child care providers in the case of decreased enrollment or closures and to ensure that providers are able to remain open or reopen and providing child care assistance to families, including essential workers. Mr. Becerra, in the coming months, can you commit to supporting states in their efforts to distribute these funds in an effective and efficient manner in line with congressional intent?

  9. Equity. Despite best intentions to make our country’s early care and education system a “great equalizer,” inequities continue to be pervasive within our system, largely failing our youngest and most marginalized learners. Development gaps between economically advantaged and disadvantaged children have been observed as early as nine months old, and before age two, toddlers from low-income backgrounds can already be months behind in language development. Mr. Becerra, how will you focus your agency’s attention on establishing a more level footing for the most vulnerable children, including those with special needs, children who are dual language learners, and historically marginalized children such as those in tribal communities?

  10. Background Checks. In 2014 the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act established comprehensive, uniform background check requirements for all child care staff to promote the safety of children when they are cared for out of their home. States have faced numerous challenges in implementing these requirements, which require coordination across several additional laws, multiple public agencies, within and across states. As such, in December, Congress established an interagency task force, chaired by the Administration for Children and Families, to support states in conducting these required criminal background checks and promoting the safety of children. This task force is required to be established by the end of February and submit a final report with its recommendations within one year of its first meeting. Mr. Becerra, if confirmed, can you commit to making this task force a priority within the Department?

  11. Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships. Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships have been funded since fiscal year 2014 to support both the expansion of traditional Early Head Start and the establishment of partnerships between Early Head Start providers and local child care programs. The partnership program demonstrates that when the federal government gives adequate resources, flexibility, and clear accountability standards, local communities will step up to the challenge. By including strong language in appropriations legislation directing HHS to continue prioritizing the needs of infants and toddlers and their families through this program, Congress clearly showed intent to build upon the success of the initiative. Mr. Becerra, will you commit to continuing to fund and prioritize this important program, and work with Congress to authorize these critical partnerships?