Nebraska lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday aimed at improving the quality of child care centers and changing the eligibility of families receiving assistance to use those centers.
The bill (LB 507), sponsored by Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, advanced on a 27-0 vote.
It would create quality criteria for child care centers in Nebraska, would make information on the quality of certain centers available for parents, and provide accountability for the state dollars spent on those centers.
Beginning July 2014, all centers that received more than $500,000 in state aid in the 2011-2012 fiscal year would participate in a rating and improvement system.
By 2015, centers that received more than $250,000 in state assistance will be required to participate.
“I want a system where every parent, no matter of their income, can know what quality is, see how their center stacks up, and to know that their child has good, quality care,” Campbell said.
Some senators expressed concern about how the bill would affect smaller counties that have fewer options for child care centers. If a center did not fulfill every standard of quality, parents may have nowhere else to send their children.
Campbell said that, because only centers that receive a certain amount of money are required to participate in the quality system, smaller counties will not have to worry as much about participation but could voluntarily participate.
However, she added that some centers would be affected all across the state.
Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln proposed an amendment (AM 1173) that would change which families are eligible for federal child care assistance program, and the amendment was adopted on a 26-0 vote.
Under current practice, families who are at 120 percent of the federal poverty level, such as families of three with an income of about $23,000, are eligible for assistance.
Under the amendment, families who are at 125 percent of the federal poverty level would be eligible for assistance in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
The eligibility would change to families who are at 130 percent of the federal poverty level in the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
“I think it’s critical that we keep access and quality, when it comes to early childhood education and child care, intertwined as it should be,” Conrad said. “My amendment would help to raise our standard.”
She added that her amendment rewards Nebraskans for working by giving their children a safe place to go while the parents are at work.
Conrad said that in 2002, families at 185 percent of the poverty level were eligible, and this amendment was an attempt to get closer to that original allowance.
In 2002, the Legislature reduced the eligibility level for assistance to 120 percent of the poverty level for budget reasons.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins questioned, however, if the Legislature had been too generous in 2002 with that level of eligibility, which could explain why the eligibility experienced such a drastic change with the budgetary cuts that year.
Many senators stressed the need for quality childhood care because it is a crucial time for development.
When children do not receive a quality early childhood education, they can be one or two years behind their peers, Campbell said. She added that the achievement gaps seen in college are the same achievement gaps seen from students entering kindergarten.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff added that teachers are assessed based on student performance when those students are coming to school already behind what is expected.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said that, with the change in the school state aid funding, approximately $8 million would be made available, which is the projected cost of the change in eligibility and quality of child care.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said, however, that the extra money belongs to the taxpayers.
“Give them back their money,” he said.