After Months Of Lobbying, Some Hope Emerges For Massive Preschool Push

President Barack Obama looks through a magnifying glass during a learning game at a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Hei
President Barack Obama looks through a magnifying glass during a learning game at a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

After months of campaigning nationwide, the Obama administration seems poised to secure funding for some pieces of its expensive preschool push, in the form of $1.1 trillion in a budget bill released late Monday.

Overall, the bill is a "mixed bag" for education funding, according to an analysis by Joel Packer, who leads the Committee for Education Funding, a nonprofit education policy group. While the bill increases funding for the Education Department by $1.597 billion above 2013 levels, it does not return its funding to where it was before sequestration, the federal budget cuts that went into effect at the beginning of last year. Instead, education spending comes in at $811 million less than 2012 levels.

The latest congressional budget deal also includes a boost of more than $1 billion for preschool programs. Head Start funding would increase by $1.025 billion, bringing the program to $612 million above pre-sequestration levels. Sequestration forced the program to cut 57,000 slots for students last year.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told HuffPost in a statement, "The budget deal we reached in December rolled back the across-the-board spending cuts that were so devastating to priorities like education, which is why I'm pleased that this bill restores Head Start funding and expands the program so more young children can start kindergarten ready to learn."

"They did the right thing: restored the mindless cuts and invested in the youngest and most vulnerable," said Yasmina Vinci, who heads the National Head Start Association.

In President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, he called for the creation of a new national program to provide free, public preschool slots to all 4-year-olds in families making up to 200 percent of the national poverty line. The program was called Preschool for All, and the administration asked for $750 million for new preschool development grants to fund the new slots in partnership with the states.

Since then, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has toured the country in search of Republican support for creating such a program, as prominent business leaders and celebrities such as Jennifer Garner have signed on. Democrats introduced a bill in November that would more or less establish the program, although many doubted the administration's ability to secure new preschool funding in a polarized Congress and tight fiscal climate.

Despite the White House's efforts, which sources say included drafting language for inclusion in the bill, the administration won't get everything it wanted in the new spending bill. Instead, the bill provides $250 million for the Race to the Top early learning competition and the Head Start expansion. And $500 million of the Head Start increase would go toward Early Head Start, a program that serves younger children and was included in initial outlines of the Obama preschool plan.

The Education Department is happy with the spending bill, according to Duncan's press secretary, Dorie Nolt. She noted that the proposed spending would make the Race to the Top competition more flexible, and enable an expansion of preschool. "These investments provide a down payment on constructing early learning systems that reach all families," Nolt said. "The proposed spending would also restore cuts to the Head Start program that were caused by sequestration, providing critical early education to our nation's children and supporting the thousands of teachers, teacher assistants and other staff."

According to Catriona MacDonald, who oversees policy for early childhood advocacy group the First Five Years Fund, the language in the spending bill allows the administration to use the new Race to the Top money to accomplish some of its original preschool goals. "[The appropriations committees] gave them what they asked for, put it under Race to the Top so it's not called a new program, but the language describing how that money is to be used gives the Education Department the authority to do exactly what they outlined in the president's early childhood initiative," she said. "It's important to Republicans to be able to say that they're not creating new programs."

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 3 p.m. to discuss the deal, and observers expect a vote in the House on Wednesday or Thursday. The bill, presented by Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), would fund the government through October.

Funding for students with disabilities covered by the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act would receive about a $500 million increase over sequestration levels to $11.5 billion, or $100 million below 2012 funding levels, despite population increases and inflation. "If you were to look at this under normal circumstances, it would be a cut," said Lindsay Jones, public policy director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. "It's a relief, but it's also disappointing."

An important stream of funding aimed at helping poor children in school, called Title I, would receive $14.1 billion under the bill -- lower than the pre-sequestration $14.5 billion 2012 level, but still $624 million above current funding.

Sequestration cuts to a program known as Impact Aid, which funds school districts on American Indian reservations and military bases, were particularly hard on districts that rely on those funds, as many lack sufficient local property tax bases to mitigate the loss. The spending bill puts Impact Aid at $1.2 billion, $64 million higher than current levels but slightly lower than pre-sequestration spending.

This article has been updated with comment from the Department of Education.



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