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Why Early-Childhood Education May Be a Winner (Again) in This Year's Budget

The Obama administration is slated to release its next budget proposal—for fiscal year 2015, which generally covers the 2015-16 school year—early next month (March 4). Last year, early-childhood education was a big winner, with the administration proposing to funnel more than $75 billion over ten years into a splashy new initiative aimed at helping states dramatically ramp up their prekindergarten programs. Congress put a more than $1 billion down payment on the request, mostly aimed at the existing Head Start program.

So, despite a still-tough budget climate, will the administration ask for the rest of the funding? And will it succeed?

The administration is almost certain to at least ask. In a broad, "talking points" memo circulated to advocates last week, the administration said it would put forth "education proposals that help us achieve the President's vision for universal Pre-K and improved Head Start options for families." And on the higher education front, it will be proposing "new demand-driven skills training proposals aimed at expanding apprenticeships and pairing colleges and private employers together" to improve workers' skills.

Both of those ideas were fixtures of last year's budget, although the details could differ this time around. (Side note: The White House is also asking for a new "Race to the Top" initiative to help prod states to become more energy efficient. So the brand is still alive and well.)

The White House almost certainly won't get the full $75 billion on early-childhood education, which is supposed to be paid for by a tax on tobacco products that Congress seems unlikely to swallow. But it may get something—early-childhood education has more political support in Congress than some of the administration's K-12 programs.

Congress has already given the administration some smaller pieces of its very big proposal, including $250 million in new funding to help states improve early-childhood education, the more than $1 billion in new Head Start funding, and a bit of new money for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. But lawmakers ignored requests for big increases for other Obama priorities, such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, Promise Neighborhoods, and the School Improvement Grant program.  

So why is one administration priority (early-childhood education) able to garner support and dollars while another (competitive grants) largely brushed aside?

Erik Fatemi, who worked as a top aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel that oversees education spending, has some analysis. For one thing, he said, when it comes to preschool, there are already big proposals in the works in states and key cities, such as New York, so the "federal government is playing catch-up, in a sense" with what's already happening across the country.

But, he added, "When you look at the appropriations process itself, it's noteworthy that this is a case where the interests of key members of Congress aligned perfectly with those of the administration—something that hasn't always happened in education up to this point."

For instance, when it comes to Race to the Top, "This is a program that has never really had strong champions in Congress, especially among the appropriators. This was mostly the administration's baby. And so it wasn't surprising that funding for this program declined over the years."

And that's part of the reason that, Race to the Top, for the last couple years, has been dedicated largely to early-childhood education, even though the administration has tried to direct itself to other priorities, he added.

"Sen. Harkin is making early-childhood education his top education priority in his last year in Congress," Fatemi said of the senator, who has decided to retire. "The president continues to press for his Preschool for All initiative. So the stars aligned, and we saw the result in the [most recent federal spending bill]."

There isn't room for Congress to do a lot on this front—recent budget legislation really constrained new spending. But if there is any new money for education, the stars may align for early childhood yet again.

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