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White House Pushes for Race to Top 2.0 in Budget Talks

As lawmakers struggle to complete some sort of federal spending plan, the Obama administration is pushing for another year of Race to the Top.

The administration has asked the House of Representatives to include $800 million for the competitive grant program in a fiscal 2011 spending bill that would extend funding for most federal programs at current levels until next fall, according to documents circulating on Capitol Hill. The administration also wants to see the Race to the Top competition opened up to districts.

But it sounds like lawmakers are not sure if they can afford that much. A draft of the bill that was also circulating this week included $300 million for Race to the Top 2.0, plus money to help fix a shortfall in the Pell Grant program. Congress would have to make a special exception to fund Race to the Top, since it was financed in the recovery act, not the regular fiscal year 2010 budget bill.

The bill isn't likely to be released until later this week, and drafts can change pretty quickly on Capitol Hill, so that $300 million may not be the final word. There could be more money ... or less. As it is, though, $300 million would basically change the whole program, which up until now has been primarily a state-level competition. Funding at $300 million is moisture in the bucket compared to the $4.35 billion the program got in the recovery act. In fact, if almost-made-it New Jersey won, it would nearly wipe out the entire amount, at least according to the ranges specified for this year's competition.

It's also hard to imagine states knocking themselves out to compete for such a small pool of funds. Surely, at that level, Race to the Top 2.0 would be very different from the original recipe, much more focused on district-level change. (I haven't heard anything about more money for the Investing in Innovation program, which financed some district-level efforts.) And for those keeping score at home, the administration initially asked for $1.35 billion to continue Race to the Top, but that seems unlikely now.

Some background: Congress is still trying to finish the spending bill for fiscal year 2011, which started way back on Oct. 1. Right now, they've passed measures (called continuing resolutions, in Beltway-speak) that essentially keep the government running by funding everything at current levels until Dec. 18. They will have to either pass this extension bill or a real budget before then.

Also, it's still unclear just what will happen with the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a new program intended to help states improve their prekindergarten programs and is also proposed for $300 million. Since it's a new program, it likely wouldn't be financed in the extension bill, unless lawmakers and the administration made some sort of exception for it, as they might do with Race to the Top.

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