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How Will Early Childhood Education Play Out in the U.S. Senate?

Can the Senate education committee produce a bipartisan bill to expand pre-kindergarten? Probably not, but it sounds like Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel wants to give it a shot.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing today on legislation put forth by Harkin, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., that would offer matching grants to states that want to offer pre-kindergarten to a significantly larger group of low income children. The bill—called the Strong Start for America's Children Act—is based on a proposal put forth by President Barack Obama in back-to-back budget requests. The legislation has a small smattering of GOP support in the House, with two GOP co-sponsors, Reps. Richard Hanna and Michael Grimm.

"The bill enjoys bipartisan support in the House of Representatives but, unfortunately, is supported on only one side of the aisle here in the Senate. I am hopeful that situation will change," Harkin said.

Also cranking up the pressure for bipartisanship: Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a big early childhood education fan who may well be heading up the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee next year, when Harkin retires. She noted that governors in red states across the country have been moving the needle on early childhood education.

"As I have seen in my state and here at the federal level ... we have across the board support of investments," Murray said. "We have Republican governors in states like Alabama, Kansas, and Michigan  who have made this a priority in their states. So I'm hoping it will not be a partisan issue in the Senate either ...  I think it's absolutely critical that we can't continue doing studies telling us how important early childhood education is and then just hope it happens. I think we have to have it be a national priority."

But if Harkin and Murray were hoping for help from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the panel, they probably aren't going to get it, at least not without major changes the current bill. He said Harkin's bill would create a "national school board for preschool." And Russ Whitehurst, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution (and the Republican witness at the hearing) agreed that it would be "like No Child Left Behind" for the early ed. set.

Instead, Alexander said at hearing that he plans to put forth his own early childhood education bill, which would gives states the chance to figure out how to use some or all of the more than $22 billion in federal money spent on early childhood education.

"Total federal government spending today is more than $22 billion a year—about the same amount that the U.S. Department of Education spends on K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," Alexander said in a press release. "It's a lot of money but we're not spending it as well as we could. The right way to take the next step is to spend the $22 billion federal dollars we are already spending in a way that enables states and parents to choose the very best early childhood experience for their child."

UPDATE: This seems to be a popular strategy these days among Republicans. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona have introduced legislation that would turn the $8 billion Head Start program into a block grant at the state level.

So what does all this mean? Whether he's able to get bipartisan support or not, Harkin is going full steam ahead on his early childhood legislation, with plans for committee consideration this spring. Even though the bill has little hope of becoming law anytime soon, debate over the measure could give Democrats a chance to seize the control of the popular issue of early childhood education ahead of the congressional mid-term, in which they are expected to struggle to hang onto the Senate.

Meanwhile, Congress has quietly started to pass more limited education legislation in areas where it's easier to get a bipartisan consensus. Case in point: The full U.S. Senate passed overwhelmingly bill that would renew the Child Care and Development Block Grant bill, and the House education committee just gave a bipartisan stamp of approval to bills reauthorizing education research and charter school policy.

Want more? Watch the hearing here.

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