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Senate Panel Approves Big Early-Childhood Education Boost

President Barack Obama's high-profile push to expand prekindergarten programs got a big assist from a Senate Appropriations panel today. The panel, which is controlled by Democrats, approved a $1.6 billion increase for Head Start—the main federal program financing early-childhood education—plus $750 million in new money to help states bolster the quality of their preschool programs.

Both programs are key pieces of the Obama administration's more-than $75 billion initiative to improve early-childhood education. Obama made a personal pitch for the program in his State of the Union address earlier this year. The initiative, outlined in the president's fiscal year 2014 budget request, would include more money for the nearly $8 billion Head Start program overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, new funding for home-visiting services, and federal matching funds to help states offer preschool to more disadvantaged 4-year-olds.

Much of the remainder of the preschool initiative's pricetag would be covered by an increase in tobacco taxes. So far, lawmakers haven't taken steps to make that tax hike a reality. But U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who oversees the Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panels that oversee K-12 policy and spending, and other senators have said they are working on legislation based in large part on the administration's preschool proposal.

Still, the expansion faces long odds in a tight-fisted Congress. The House Appropriations Committee has yet to take up its (likely much leaner) spending bill for fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

Rather than focusing on creating new programs, lawmakers and the administration are still trying to figure out a way to halt sequestration—a series of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts slated to be in place for the next 10 years, as part of a plan to rein in the deficit. So far, Washington has been unable to come up with a long-term spending agreement to reverse those cuts, even though sequestration hits military programs, generally favored by Republicans, as well as domestic spending programs, typically embraced by Democrats.

Other than the preschool expansion, money for new programs is likely to be hard to come by. Case in point: The Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing K-12 spending rebuffed the administration's push for a $300 million competitive grant program to help high schools partner with non-profits, institutions of higher education, and businesses to improve math and science education.

If the Senate Democrats weren't interested in—or able to fund— the program this year, it seems unlikely that it will come to fruition any time soon, since House Republicans have been wary of creating new programs.

But the committee did include $400 million—$600 million less than the administration's $1 billion ask— for a Race to the Top for higher education. The money would go to help states improve student outcomes, such as graduation rates, while keeping tuition in check.

Meanwhile, key formula aid programs would see tiny increases under the Senate legislation, which provides funding for fiscal year 2014, beginning Oct. 1 of this year. The roughly $14.5 billion Title I program, which offers grants to help districts educate disadvantaged children, would receive a hike of $125 million. And state grants for special education, currently financed at nearly $11.6 billion, would get a $125 million increase. Neither increase is enough to make up for sequestration's squeeze on school districts.

Overall, the U.S. Department of Education would get $69.4 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion over fiscal year 2013, without taking into account the sizeable cuts from sequestration.

Under the bill, state grants to improve teacher quality would be financed at roughly last year's level of $2.5 billion. A small percentage of that funding—5.5 percent—would be allocated for competitive grants to improve teacher preparation programs. That's less than the 25 percent set-aside the administration asked for.

The committee also included a boost for the controversial School Improvement Grant program, which helps states turn around their lowest-performing schools, increasing it to about $567 million, from roughly $533 million this year. The increase is less than the nearly $660 million the administration wanted.

Other winners include the Promise Neighborhoods programs, which helps schools partner with wraparound service programs, such as health and arts education. The program would be financed at $100 million, less than the $300 million the administration asked for, but still considerably more than this year's level of nearly $60 million. And the legislation includes a small increase for grants for after-school programs, bringing them to $1.2 billion. There's also new money for state-wide longitudinal data systems—$75 million, a big boost over the current level of $38.1 million.

The full Appropriations Committee will need to give its stamp of approval to the bill, and then it could advance to the floor of the Senate for debate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committe, said.

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