Clinton praises NCJWs efforts promoting child care

While many Jewish groups seek the president's presence, such appearances are rare.

"We feel really honored that he thinks so highly about the National Council of Jewish Women, and we certainly feel the same way about him," said Helene Wichner of San Pablo.

Clinton's decision to speak in front of the women's activist organization was seen at least in part as an effort to recognize the pioneering work the 90,000-member NCJW has done in placing the child-care issue on the nation's radar.

In fact, not much has changed since NCJW — an advocacy and educational group that focuses mostly on issues related to women, children and families — issued its report, "Windows on Daycare."

Many of the same findings apply today: an acute shortage of care, a high turnover among caregivers, poor training, inadequate licensing, low reimbursement rates in some states and an overall lack of quality.

While decrying the poor educational showing of American high school students in math and science and the failures of adults responsible for educating them, Clinton, in his speech, emphasized the importance of starting "with the basics" in areas such as child care.

"There are still too many kids that don't get off to the start they need," Clinton said at NCJW's Washington Institute, which the group holds for activists every three years.

Child care is one of the core issues on the group's agenda for the coming year. The more than 700 Jewish activists from across the country were slated to fan out across Capitol Hill this week to urge lawmakers to support legislation aimed at improving the quality of child care.

They also planned to lobby members of Congress to oppose school voucher initiatives and support continued funding for international family-planning programs — the group's two other priority issues this year.

A number of different child-care bills introduced by both Republicans and Democrats are pending in Congress.

"We know child care is needed now more than ever, and we remind those on Capitol Hill who suggest that women should stay home that unfortunately many parents do not have that choice," said Nan Rich of Westin, Fla., the national president of NCJW.

"Most women work outside the home out of economic necessity."

In wide-ranging remarks that touched on Iraq and campaign finance reform, Clinton also highlighted the success of an NCJW brainchild, a program called HIPPY — Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters.

Developed in 1969 by NCJW's research arm at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the program was designed to help parents with limited formal schooling provide education enrichment for their preschool children.

In 1986, Hillary Clinton invited Rich to Arkansas to talk to her and then-governor Clinton about the program, and Arkansas soon became the first state to implement it.

It has since expanded to 26 states, serving more than 13,000 families.

"If every child could be in that kind of program, it would do as much to strengthen families and the later success of children who are otherwise at risk as anything we could do," Bill Clinton said.

Clinton also reiterated the proposal he unveiled earlier this year for spending $21.7 billion on child-care programs over five years to improve the affordability, accessibility and quality of child care.

Clinton's message on child care clearly resonated with the NCJW participants, many of whom had to make creative arrangements with their own children in order to attend the four-day conference.

"It's a constant struggle to balance doing what's right as a professional and making sure that you take care of your child," said Amy Baker, director of NCJW's Center For the Child, which works to promote the well-being of children and families.

"You can't warehouse a kid, and, optimally, kids shouldn't be in child care 10 or 12 hours a day, but you don't always have that choice," said Debbie Greene of Dallas, Texas, a 42-year-old mother of two who teaches early childhood education.

"If you're going to have children in care, it needs to be quality care for their emotional, physical, social and intellectual well-being — it's imperative."

In appearing before the Jewish women's organization, Clinton was reaching out to one of his core constituencies. If his support among women has waned at all in the face of allegations about presidential peccadilloes, it was not apparent in this group.

Clinton worked the rope lines for nearly 20 minutes, shaking hands with just about every eager-faced participant within reach, even hoisting up a baby. He appeared to linger under the glow of the klieg lights as the strains of triumphant music blared from the PA system, including the theme from "Superman."