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One of Marian Wright Edelman's favorite books is the classic children's story about a train that learns to run on willpower. "The Little Engine That Could" puffs to a happy ending by telling itself, "I think I can, I think I can."

Indeed the woman who thinks and speaks with the speed of a locomotive admits, "I read it all the time." More than once in the past year she's wanted to send copies of the story from her office to the folks who work a few blocks away in the House of Representatives. Anything to get them rolling again.

Edelman herself has been the engine behind the Children's Defense Fund for so many years that it may be time to rename it the Grandchildren's Defense Fund. But after a decade that put children's interests at the caboose end of the public agenda, she sees people changing direction.

So with Congress back to work, Edelman will begin the '90s the way she ended the '80s, chugging back up the Hill. Number one on her agenda is child care, more and better care. "We see child care as a litmus-test issue on whether Congress is serious about kids." If they can't agree on this, she says, they probably can't do anything for kids.

Indeed, there is more of a national consensus about the need for child care than about nearly any other issue affecting families. Child care has been an apple-pie issue since the summer of 1988 when both presidential candidates had photo-ops at day-care centers. It's been an American flag issue since the summer of 1989 when the Act for Better Child Care was passed as an amendment to a Senate bill banning desecration of the flag.

Virtually every player was on board the $1.75 billion compromise bill that was passed by the Senate. The plan set aside money for Headstart to go all-day. It set aside money for public schools to provide care for three- and four-year-olds and after-school care for older kids. And it allotted $1 billion to help families pay for the child care of their choice.

But it was derailed at the last minute in a battle between two congressional committees over turf and money: who would distribute how much money which way. This prompted an unusually angry response from Edelman, who still smarts from the recognition that "We HAD the money for 1990. We could have served 400,000 families this year. And it went down because the men on the Hill just don't get it."

The two congressional committees, headed by men who are ostensibly child-care supporters, are still deadlocked. Says Edelman, "They don't see child care as a power issue." The question is how to find enough power, beyond the power of positive thinking, to get the issue resolved and to get some serious money out of the Congress.

There are over 11 million pre-schoolers with working parents, and that figure is expected to hit 15 million by 1995. But parents, unlike the elderly, don't have a strong enough political base.

Why not? In part it's because every year there's a turnover in the day-care constituency as one group of kids grows out of the need, and another is born into it. Child care is an issue that parents care about deeply until they find it for their own kids. Parents retain just enough ambivalence about this care-taking to mute their voices. And parents are busy.

In the jargon of the '90s, child care is now listed as an answer to everything from productivity to education woes to welfare. That may finally become a common ground for everyone from grandparents to teachers to employers.

"We've got to start off the '90s taking care of home, family, kids, the future," says Edelman. "The money in this bill, $1.75 billion, is about one cent for every dollar going to the savings-and-loan bailout. This is not a budget issue, but a values and will issue."

So the supporters of child-care legislation are back on track in pursuit of enough dollars to begin. Will they get them? They think they can, they think they can, they think they can.

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