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Draft Preschool Bill Follows Obama Proposal, With Some Changes

Last week we told you that Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, plus Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., were on the verge of introducing legislation that would dramatically expand access to prekindergarten programs for 4-year olds, a proposal that President Barack Obama unveiled in his State of the Union address.

The legislation has not been finalized yet, and won't be officially introduced until later this week. But a draft of the legislation that's been widely distributed among education advocates shows that Harkin and Miller are largely following the president's proposal.

The draft would seek to bolster program quality. To get the grants, states would have to establish early-learning standards (they all have them) and promise to start linking preschool data to K-12 (at least 30 states were in a position to do this as of the spring), as well as provide state-funded kindergarten. And, early-education teachers would have to have bachelor's degrees. States that don't meet these quality standards could apply for grants to help them get up to snuff. Additional info here from the Huffington Post.

There would however, be some key differences between the administration's broad proposal and the lawmakers' draft. For instance:

  • Under the congressional draft, states would get the option to set aside 15 percent of their funding to serve infants and toddlers from families earning at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which is roughly $47,000 annually for a family of four. That wasn't part of the Obama plan, which largely sought to serve younger kids primarily through a big expansion of Head Start and home-visiting services. Also, under the draft, once states serve low-and-moderate income 4-year-olds, they could extend services to low- and moderate-income 3-year-olds, as long as the 4-year-olds don't lose out. The Obama plan enticed states instead to offer full-day kindergarten, once they had served most 4-year-olds.
  • The Obama administration would pay for the program largely out of mandatory funds, covered through a tobacco tax (which the tobacco lobby pretty much hated on sight). The congressional draft legislation would be paid for using the regular appropriations process. The draft authorizes (Congress-speak for "recommends"—the amounts are non-binding) more than $1.3 billion in the first year, increasing to more than $8.9 billion by fiscal year 2018. And, importantly, the money would be discretionary, not mandatory (so subject to the whims of Congress, not required by law). There's also no clear pay-for in the draft bill. A lawmaker could introduce the tobacco tax separately, or the bill's champions could find another way to cover the cost. 

Keep in mind: The widely circulated draft hasn't been finalized yet—it could change, maybe significantly. 

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