Like football players in a huddle, the opponents of a bill that they said would weaken regulation of day-care centers in Virginia gathered outside a legislator's office one morning this week in a hasty strategy-planning session.
"If you have any time today, get McClanan," said Irwina Oelrich, a child-care advocate, dispatching colleagues to find state Del. Glenn B. McClanan (D-Virginia Beach), a ranking member of a House committee considering the measure.
Though the women complained that they couldn't remember legislators' names or find their offices, in the end their arguments convinced not only McClanan, but nine other members of the House General Laws Committee.
By one vote, the committee today killed a bill that would have stripped from the state Department of Social Services responsibility for regulating about 300 for-profit day-care centers, and given it to a board dominated by center operators under the state Commerce Department.
The opponents of the bill said such a board would mean virtually no independent state regulation of those centers and the children in their care.
The bill would not have affected state regulation of nonprofit day-care centers, but it whipped up frenzied passions nonetheless, with speakers before the committee today trying to outdo each other in stridency.
The bill's opponents accused supporters of caring more about money than about the safety and welfare of children. Supporters suggested that opponents were trying to pass their responsibility as parents onto the state.
"Would you put your child in a center that was deregulated?" demanded one opponent of the bill during the hearing. "Do you want the best for your child?"
Oelrich followed up with examples of youngsters who were burned or otherwise abused at centers in North Carolina, a state that she claimed had the same regulatory structure that the bill's sponsor, state Sen. William E. Fears (D-Accomack) wanted for Virginia.
Fears mounted a counterattack on legislators' heartstrings with a description of a center operator sobbing in his office about unfair treatment by the Department of Social Services. "She was upset and she was crying," he repeated. "All we want to do is get out from under these onerous regulations. These nice day centers feel like the Department of Social Services is trying to run them out of business."
Somewhat obscured by the rhetoric, legislators both for and against Fears' bill agree, lay real problems with how the state now regulates day-care centers. Both sides can cite examples of seemingly absurd regulations promulgated by the state agency.
Del. Ralph Axselle (D-Henrico), who spearheaded the opposition, uses the example of a state rule against parents of children in certain age groups bringing cakes to the center, apparently so the centers won't feed the children spoiled food.
Another controversial rule requires center operators to maintain a certain temperature just above the floor where children may be sleeping on cots.
Axselle and other opponents of the bill argued that the state is already addressing that problem by rewriting the regulations with the help of center operators. Stripping the agency of some of its regulatory power, Oelrich claimed, would "throw the baby out with the bath water."
A bigger problem, both sides agree, is the total lack of state regulation, other than fire and health codes, over many types of day-care centers.
Centers run by hospitals, churches, military bases and educational institutions, among others, are all exempt from the licensing requirements that apply to about 900 for-profit and nonprofit centers in the state.
While Fears said ideally all centers should be under the regulatory umbrella, he insisted no such proposal would pass the General Assembly.
Fears, an outspoken legislator fond of citing his Yale credentials, characterized opponents of his measure as "the dungaree, pony-tail, men's shirt-type" and referred to them alternately as "socialists" and "social workers."
He pushed for the measure almost single handedly, sliding it through the Senate last year with little trouble, and seemed to take his defeat today in good spirit. "I'll be back," he promised committee members as he walked out.