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Will Congress Find Money for Both Race to the Top and Early Learning?

So Congress is apparently closing in on a deal to finance the government—including the U.S. Department of Education—through federal fiscal year 2014, which largely impacts the 2014-15 school year.        

Lawmakers are close, but not over the finish line yet. One of the flashpoints during negotiations: The administration wants money for both of its two highest-profile education initiatives—the Preschool Development grants,which are supposed to help states bolster their early-childhood programs, and Race to the Top, which this year is slated to be a competition among states to improve their higher education programs.

"The big sticking point on dollars is funding [or not] for preschool development grants and Race to the Top," said Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, in an email. "I believe the administration wants both." 

The problem? Even though Congress temporarily rolled back sequestration (those across-the-board cuts to federal programs), there may not be enough new money at lawmakers' disposal to fund both programs at a level that makes the White House happy, particularly because lawmakers are trying to use scarce resources to help big formula programs (Title I and special education) recover from the cuts. Lawmakers could choose to fund both Race to the Top and early learning on top of that, but each might get short shrift.   

Some background: When it released its budget back in April, the White House asked for $750 million for preschool development grants, a brand new program that would help set the stage for the White House's bigger and broader plan to entice states to expand preschool to more 4-year-olds. That proposal has been introduced as legislation by the top two Democrats on K-12 policy in Congress: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., but its lofty price-tag (more than $25 billion over the first five years) means that it's unlikely to garner much bipartisan support. (So far, just two moderate House Republicans are on board.)

Still, the Senate Appropriations Committee (which is controlled by Democrats) provided the full $750 million for the preschool grants, to the delight of early-childhood advocates. We have no idea if the House K-12 appropriations panel would have funded the program—its members never made their spending bill public.

The administration also asked for $1 billion for the new Race to the Top competition, which would be aimed at helping state university systems improve outcomes (like graduation rates) while holding tuition down. The Senate panel wasn't nearly as generous here—it initially provided just $400 million for the next iteration of Race to the Top, and then knocked it down even further, to $250 million, to make room for an increase to a program that helps low-income people cover their heating and cooling bills. Race to the Top, which creates high-profile winners and losers, isn't very popular on Capitol Hill.

So what are advocates for school districts hoping for? First and foremost, big money for special education and Title I.

"We would hope that the priority for the administration and Congress would remain on federal formula programs that support all schools and students as they emerge from the sequester," said Noelle Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

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