(WOMENSENEWS)–Major improvements in federal funding for child care, Head Start and after-school programs are at risk during this post-election period of political uncertainty and increased partisanship.

During its lame-duck session, children’s advocates fear, Congress might attempt to undo a joint House and Senate agreement on a higher level of funding for the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services, through which the children’s programs are funded. Some political observers and children’s advocates said that Republicans might wish to reconsider higher spending levels, frequently favored by Democrats, especially if Texas Gov. George W. Bush is elected.

The Children’s Defense Fund has launched a campaign to shore up support during the Congressional deliberations expected to begin Dec. 5.

“We are asking people who care about children to weigh in with their member of Congress,” said Helen Blank, director of the Children’s Defense Fund’s child care and development division. “We would hope people would call their representatives and tell them families can’t wait” for the assistance this legislation provides.

Significant Increases in Spending Are at Stake

The funding agreed to in conference before the recess would add $1 billion this year to Head Start funding, for a federal total of $6.3 billion in the fiscal year that began on the first of October.

The federal budgeting process is an annual one. In recent years, the discord between the Republican Congress and the Democratic White House has caused the final spending bills to be delayed. A continuation funding resolution is in place that allows all government functions to spend at last year’s levels until Congress passes and the President signs the remaining spending bills.

At the start of the process of taking the budget approved by Congress and setting the spending, there were 13 such appropriations bills. The bill now being watched by child advocates consolidates spending for the three big social policy departments: Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. For reasons unrelated to the child funding measures, the conference report could be eroded in the highly partisan atmosphere. In other words, Republicans might try to reduce spending on social programs to benefit children, a traditional Democratic cause, because of general bickering in the aftermath of the undecided election, according to children’s advocates.

This conference agreement also calls for an additional $817 million in child care block grant money to states and for $1 billion for the after-school program, known as the 21st Century Community Learning Centers.

Conferees also backed increases in smaller child care programs before recessing, without completing work on the final $350 billion spending bill.

The final approval of the new funds could be in doubt, because if Texas Gov. George W. Bush wins the presidency, his actions on such complex issues could not be predicted at this time.

Patrick Lester, public policy director of the Washington-based Coalition on Human Needs, said last week that it is generally difficult to predict the future of the legislation, but the outcome of the presidential election ultimately holds the key to resolving this year’s budget.

“If you have a President Al Gore,” Lester said, ”he is likely to mirror the policies of the Clinton administration,” which Lester credits with insisting on the funding for Head Start and the other early childhood and extended-day programs in this legislation.

A President Bush, Lester said, would probably mean that Congress will want to delay, pass a longer continuing funding resolution and possibly hold off taking action until February, when the new Presidentís wishes are known.

Increases Do Not Cover Unmet Needs

Even if this legislation passes with the substantial funding increases, the resource needs in these child and family programs still far surpass federal funding prospects.

Head Start eligibility extends to children 3 and 4 years old who live in poverty. Because some states augment the program, definitions vary. The early childhood program is designed to improve learning and social skills before children enter kindergarten.

But full funding has never been in place, despite the proven efficacy of good Head Start programs.

For instance, in Minnesota, a generally progressive state that emphasizes children’s programs, the state estimates it is serving only 45 percent of the children eligible for Head Start, leaving out 16,500 because of funding shortages. In Minnesota, about 1,000 low-income families are on the waiting list for basic sliding-fee child care and thousands more are eligible.

Blank, of the Children’s Defense Fund, said that consensus about the need for more resources for children and the opportunity of utilizing surplus revenue were important in obtaining the increased funding agreed to earlier in this session.

The Goal Is to Keep the Accord Intact

“The increases are pretty significant,” she said. “They provide major improvements in access,” not only to the long-recognized Head Start program but also to child care and after-school programs.

Head Start was once controversial but now enjoys wide acceptance. However, it was originally hoped every child of parents currently living in poverty could be enrolled, much like kindergarten, which also was once controversial.

“Research shows that, yes, Head Start does help to prepare low-income children to be ready to learn when they enter school. It improves academic readiness and achievement, self-esteem, social behavior and physical health,” said Kay Mills, a California author who studied Head Start in order to write about the first 25 years of the program in her book, “Something Better for My Children.”

Before they enter school, Head Start children also will have had dental checkups, nutritional meals, necessary immunizations, hearing and vision tests and other medical screening and treatment, Mills said.

Blank cited research that shows after-school programs like the ones funded in the joint agreement help kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds succeed at school.

Consensus for Need Exists, Yet Funds Not Yet Fully Approved

All sides in the pre-recess spending negotiations in Washington, Blank said, “realized that these issues aren’t political” and that assistance to families should not be held hostage during protracted delays in appropriating federal funds.

“A family that needs child care now can’t wait until January,” she added.

Child advocates want Congress to confirm the increased funding, especially during this climate of uncertainty, at a time when $240 billion in proposed Republican tax cuts are still officially on the table. Historically, children’s issues have been vulnerable even in calmer political climates, and the current delay in resuming the Congressional session increases the uncertainty and volatility of the issues.

The Children’s Defense Fund seeks these “must-haves” in appropriations bills:

  • A $817-million increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant
  • A $1 billion increase in Head Start
  • $1 billion for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers
  • A $15-million increase for campus-based child care
  • $10 million for a child care loan forgiveness program
  • New funds for the Early Learning Trust Fund and an Early Childhood Education and Development Program, and nutritious meals for low-income children enrolled in community for-profit child care centers.

Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist who has covered social and economic policy for the last 10 years.