Marian Wright Edelman

Amidst the shameful dysfunctional legislative gridlock of the U.S. House of Representatives, it was a great joy last week to celebrate a time and a leader – former Minnesota Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale – when bipartisanship, common sense and a national moral commitment to children and families almost became the law of the land for young children.

What a different country we would be today had millions of children received the carefully conceived high-quality early childhood and family support services in the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971 which President Nixon vetoed on the eve of his trip to China, capitulating to right wing ideologues such as Phyllis Schlafly and Patrick Buchanan. 

In addition to mischaracterizations of the legislation’s provisions, President Nixon attempted to portray day care and other child care services outside the home as a radical new departure, ignoring the millions of mothers already in the workforce. 

The Act was a model of what bipartisan support can look like. It passed December 2, 1971 by a vote of 63 yeas to 17 nays in the United States Senate with 39 Democrats and 24 Republicans. Republican Senators Richard Schweiker (Penn.) and Jacob Javits (N.Y.) were lead cosponsors. Five days later, thanks to the leadership of Rep .John Brademas (Ind.), the United States House of Representatives voted its approval, 211 to 187, with 180 Democrats and 31 Republicans.

This Act passed because of strong bipartisan leadership and the enthusiastic support and hard work of the most broad-based coalition assembled since enactment of the social legislation of the early 1960s. It included poverty, civil rights, children’s and women’s groups across the income spectrum, labor unions, faith leaders, educators, community and citizen organizations. During committee hearings, the need for child development legislation was detailed by leading child advocates, developmental psychologists and pediatricians. Outside groups worked hand-in-hand with Senator Mondale’s staff in the drafting process. The Washington Post called the bill “as important a breakthrough for the young as Medicare was for the old,” and described it as “a vehicle for a new national effort to make childhood livable.” 

The Act was designed to begin to meet the developmental needs of all children, regardless of family income, by investing major new federal funds to establish high quality comprehensive programs with federal standards under a coordinated delivery system. Its funding authorization the first year of $2 billion – equivalent to $11.3 billion today – is nearly $3 billion more than the 2014 Head Start funding level of $8.6 billion.  

Although Senator Mondale introduced weaker versions of the 1971 bill soon thereafter, it took the Children’s Defense Fund Action Council working tirelessly with a broad coalition of early childhood, faith, civil rights and education groups 19 years to help gain enough momentum for enactment of the less comprehensive Child Care and Development Block Grant in 1990, which President George H.W. Bush signed after feared veto threats. 

In 1971, 40 percent of mothers were in the workforce; today 70 percent are, including 64 percent with children under 6. In 2014, although 15.5 million children were poor, Head Start served fewer than half of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds and Early Head Start reached only 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers. Only 1 in 6 federally-eligible children receives a subsidy through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and enrollment numbers continue to decline as the cost of care increases. 

In 2012, the total combined federal and state child care funding under the Child Care Block Grant and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program fell to its lowest level since 2002. Center-based childcare for an infant is more expensive than tuition at a public, 4-year college in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Fewer than half of 3- and 4-year olds are enrolled in any preschool program and even fewer are in high quality programs. 

A baby is born with a brain 25 percent of adult size. By age 5 a child’s brain has grown dramatically to 90 percent of adult size. Research and experience show that quality early childhood programs are one of the best investments the nation can make towards assuring better education and societal outcomes. Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates the return on investment of such programs at 7-10 percent per year. 

Deep thanks to Senator Mondale and his co-sponsors in both parties and then House Education and Labor Chair John Brademas and his Republican co-sponsors who sought to put our nation’s children and families above partisan political gain. I hope we may see their likes again and an end to the ugly political grandstanding that denies children the basic supports they need to be ready for and achieve in school in our competitive global world. 

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to