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Boosts for Head Start, Title I, Special Education in Federal Spending Bill

Federal funding for most schools would be largely restored after the biggest cuts to K-12 spending in history, under a giant spending bill unveiled Monday night by Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. And the Head Start early childhood program would see a major, $1 billion boost. 

But two initiatives high on the Obama administration's wish list—a Race to the Top for higher education and $750 million in new grants to help states improve their preschool programs—won't receive funding in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 of this year. What's more, the Obama administration's signature school turnaround program would undergo a major makeover, resulting in more flexibility for states and districts to devise their own strategies for fixing the lowest-performing schools.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill is the first since Congress temporarily put the brakes on sequestration, the 5 percent, across-the-board cuts to federal programs that went into effect last March. The proposal will largely impact school districts beginning in the fall, with the start of the 2014-15 school year.

The big, formula programs that nearly every school district depends on—Title I grants for districts and special education state grants—would receive slight increases under the spending bill. Both programs were pinched by sequestration, resulting in larger class sizes, delayed professional development, and other cutbacks at schools around the country.

Neither program made it back up to the level it was at before sequestration hit, but both came come close. Title I grants, which help districts educate poor children, would be financed $14.4 billion, a $624 million increase over sequestration levels, but not quite to their previous high of $14.5 billion in fiscal year 2012, before the sequester cuts hit. And special education state grants would get $11.5 billion, a $497 million increase over sequestration levels, but not as high as the nearly $11.6 billion the program got before the cuts went into effect.

Overall, the National Education Association, a 3-million member teachers' union, was pretty happy with the compromise.

"I think this appropriations bill is trying to address the harm that has come to students most in need under the sequester," said Mary Kusler, the director of government relations for the NEA.

The administration's signature education overhaul initiative—Race to the Top—would continue, although not in the way that the White House initially envisioned in its budget proposal, unveiled last spring. The administration asked Congress for $1 billion for a new round of the competition aimed at prodding states to improve higher education outcomes (such as graduation rates) while holding down tuition. Instead, the spending measure would provide just $250 million for another iteration of the Race to the Top early-learning competition which so far has awarded grants to 20 states.

However, the administration did get a higher education consolation prize of sorts: $75 million in new money for a "First in the World" fund aimed at helping colleges test out new strategies for improving student outcomes.

And the Head Start program, which suffered big losses under sequestration, losing 57,000 slots, walked away a big winner. The program got a $1 billion boost, bringing it up to nearly $8.6 billion. Much of the increase—$500 million would go to bolster Early Head Start, which serves children aged birth through three. The administration had sought a major expansion of Head Start as a complement to its broader initiative to substantially expand early-learning programs. For her part, Kusler specifically praised the increase for Head Start, calling "a recognition of the importance of early-childhood education."

Another big winner on the early-childhood front: the Child Care and Development Block Grants, which help states offer child care assistance to needy families. The bill includes $2.4 billion for the program, an increase of $154 million over last year's levels.

But the White House didn't entirely get its way on a new proposal: preschool development grants. The administration asked for $750 million for the program, which was intended to pave the way for its broader plan to offer prekindergarten to more 4-year-olds. The development grants would have helped states get their early-childhood programs ready for the expansion, providing money for things like creating facilities and providing professional development to educators. While the state grant program hasn't come to fruition yet, the development grants were included in a fiscal year 2014 spending bill written by Senate Democrats. But the final compromise rejects the proposal—despite a rumored big push from the White House—in favor of a new round of Race to the Top early learning and the Head Start expansion. It's unclear if the Race to the Top early learning competition will be refashioned to more closely resemble the proposed development grant program. 

Other winners in the bill include Impact Aid, which helps school districts make up for tax revenue lost because of a federal presence, such as a Native American reservation or military base. The budget compromise finances Impact Aid at $1.3 billion, a $64 million increase over last year's levels. While many Impact Aid districts were able to weather the sequester cuts, a number of others had to lay off staff, cut programs, and even close down schools.

Career and Technical Education was another big winner. The program would see a $53 million boost from last year, to $1.1 billion.

The measure also provides a slight increase—$28 million—for school safety programs, which got a lot of attention in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. The bill provides nearly $140 million for school safety, up from $111 million in fiscal year 2013.

Another major development in the bill doesn't have to do with spending levels at all. Instead, there's language in the measure that amounts to a huge policy change for the controversial School Improvement Grant program, one of the Obama administration's most prominent initiatives. The program would get about $505 million, roughly the same level it received last year, during sequestration.

But, under the spending bill, schools would no longer have to choose one of the administration's four controversial turnaround models, which call for dramatic actions such as extending the school day, putting in place merit pay programs for educators, and replacing school leadership. Instead, the measure offers schools and states two new choices, including the chance to try out any school improvement strategy that's been proposed by the state and gotten a green light from the U.S. Secretary of Education. On top of that, the measure adds a fifth model, known as "whole school reform," which would allow schools to partner with an outside organization that has proven track record in turnarounds.

And the bill would allow schools to receive the grants for five years, not just three as under current law.

The new SIG language in the spending bill didn't come out of thin air—it closely mirrors the SIG provisions in a bill to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was approved by Senate education committee last June. But it's a blow to the Obama administration, which had stood stubbornly behind its four models, even as student outcome data from the SIG program showed it had a mixed track record.

Other Obama administration education redesign priorities got slight increases. Charter school grants would be financed at $248 million, up $6.6 million from last year. The Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to help districts create pay-for-performance programs, would get $288 million, up $5 million from last year. And state assessments would see a $9.1 million boost, to $378 million. 

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