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Will Early-Childhood Education Get a Boost from Congress?

Lawmakers are busy putting the finishing touches on legislation to finance the federal government—including the U.S. Department of Education—during the federal budget year that largely funds 2014-15 school year. And a big, looming question is: How much money, if any, will Congress provide for the administration's biggest new initiative, a plan to help states expand preschool to more 4-year-olds?

That's one of the sticking points in discussions over the spending bills, advocates say. (Another is funding for the Affordable Care Act, the administration's signature health-care law.)

After all, the budget compromise kept spending levels relatively flat for the next two years, leaving little room for splashy new initiatives, or even for the $750 million in proposed start-up funding that was included in both President Barack Obama's budget and the version of the spending bill passed earlier this year by the Senate Appropriations Committee (which is controlled by Democrats). The spending bill also contained a big boost for the roughly $8 billion Head Start program, to the tune of $1.6 billion.

At the very least, the Head Start program, which was hit hard by across-the-board cuts known as sequestration, needs to be made whole, advocates say. After all, the program, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, had to cut 57,000 slots because of the cuts.

Early-childhood education is a huge priority, not just for the administration, but for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who oversees the subcommittee that controls K-12 spending. He's listed getting it done as the number one education item on his to-do list during his final year in office. And the White House is pushing behind the scenes for at least some funding for its initiative, which also included new Head Start funding, advocates say.

So will it all come together?

"This has been a very challenging couple of years," said Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning for the National Women's Law Center. "I think it's very hard to make predictions about" where things will come down. But she added that "things look [more] promising" than they have in years.  (For more on what Blank and other early-childhood education advocates want out of the budget deal, see this letter they sent to lawmakers last month.)

But there are a lot of competing priorities on the education front. The administration has continually pressed Congress to provide more funding for its signature competitive-grant initiatives, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and the School Improvement Grant program. But advocates want funding for formula grants that go out to districts, such as Title I and special education state grants, which have suffered under sequestration. More here.

It's unclear whether the administration would be willing to see those programs—which generally aren't as popular in Congress as early-childhood education—dwindle so that early childhood can have a big (or modest) win.

On top of all that, the recent budget deal switched funding to cover the cost of servicing student loans from the "mandatory" (automatic) to the discretionary side of the ledger. That means that lawmakers somehow will need to find roughly $400 million more from the same pot that covers education, not to mention popular health programs, such as the National Institutes of Health.

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