Proposed bill helps students with children

by Coralie Carlson

Toddlers bounded from tube slides to sand boxes Wednesday afternoon at the day-care facility just off campus.
While they skipped across a winding sidewalk leading to Toddler Parkway and Infant Lane — the University Child Care Center’s hallways — their parents attended classes at the University.
Some federal lawmakers want to ensure this kind of child care for low-income students doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of recent welfare changes. A bill under consideration in the Senate boosts campus child-care programs for low-income students at a time when welfare policies require parents to work instead of attend school.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., is a co-author of the bill, which could be tacked onto an expansive higher education act due for reauthorization this year. The House and Senate are expected to open debate on the higher education bill this week.
The proposed legislation would bestow grant money on universities to create or improve child-care programs for low-income parents. The bill defines low-income students as those eligible for need-based financial aid like Pell Grants.
The University could receive up to $79,000 in grant money under this program.
Patty Finstad, University Child Care Center director, said she hopes the initiative will help counteract welfare legislation by giving low-income parents the opportunity to earn a degree. She said welfare regulations recently enacted hinder a parent’s ability to receive an education.
“It serves to undermine the goal by saying parents have to be in the work force rather than be in school,” Finstad said.
Low-income University students can receive state assistance for child care through their counties. Those not on welfare are eligible for up to four years of subsidized child-care rates as an undergraduate.
But students receiving public assistance are only eligible for a maximum of two years of lower fees because welfare recipients are encouraged to find jobs quickly.
Federal and state guidelines discourage training programs of more than a year, said Beverly Stewart, a Student Parent HELP counselor advocate.
“Basically it’s a work focus rather than a school focus,” said Diane Wartchow, director of the University’s Student Parent HELP Center. “School is secondary.”
The center serves about 320 student-parents, offering services like counseling and academic advice for undergraduate parents.
Wartchow said the child-care access bill looks favorable because it allows the institutions to determine how to spend grant money according to need. She said rather than using the money for new projects like building a new day-care center, the grants should go toward subsidizing the cost of existing child care.
“It has to help pay or subsidize the weekly rate to help my students,” Wartchow said.
Officials at the Student Parent HELP Center have their own plans for subsidizing the cost to students. They applied for a federal grant to start a new program to help welfare parents pay for child care.
At the one-story University Child Care Center, the largest of three campus child-care facilities, 16 percent of children come from low-income families. Low-income families pay a subsidized rate depending on income.
“We don’t have a problem here, but low-income students have a problem getting to us in a timely manner,” Finstad said.
University officials said the proposed federal funding is needed, but the legislation is still a long way from becoming law. After Congress passes the bill, it has to approve spending money for the initiative.
“We just need more money because we need to spread the word that child care is so vitally important,” Finstad said.