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Spending Bill Would Fund Preschool Grants, But Not Race to Top


Congress unveiled its long-awaited spending bill Tuesday evening, which would fund most of the government, including the U.S. Department of Education and federally funded education programs, through September 2015. 

The measure, if adopted by both chambers and signed by President Barack Obama, would avert a government shutdown that could take place Dec. 11, when the current stopgap funding bill is set to expire. The House is tentatively scheduled to pass the bill Wednesday with the Senate following suit Thursday.

The proposal is a hybrid continuing resolution/omnibus, which quickly garnered the inside-the-Beltway moniker "cromnibus."

The bill would hold education funding largely steady, but would include some increases for early childhood programs. The Obama administration would receive $250 million to dole out to states for a second year of the Preschool Development Grant program. And the bill would provide $2.4 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant program, a $75 million increase to help support a recent update of the program, which bolsters health and safety standards for child care programs.

Other core education programs would be level-funded or slated for small hikes. Under the fiscal plan, the landmark $14.4 billion Title I grant program for schools with large numbers of low-income students and the $11.5 billion special education state grants program would receive modest $25 million increases. And the measure would keep funding for Head Start steady at $8.6 billion.

But a few education programs would take a notable whack, including Race to the Top, one of the Obama administration's signature competitive grants, which appropriators sought to scrap completely.

"Within a very difficult budget environment, this bill protects key investments in America and allows us to respond to several new challenges facing our nation," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and outgoing chairman of the Senate education appropriations subcommittee.

"I am particularly encouraged that the bill invests in high-quality early childhood care and education, provides programs that support working families, allows for an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award and number of recipients, and expands investments that allow for a continued response to the Ebola outbreak, both in the United States and overseas," he added. 

Other high-priority competitive grants for the administration took smaller hits: The $141 million Investing in Innovation, which helps scale up promising practices at the district level, would lose $21.6 million under the proposal. Funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund program, which doles out grants to districts to fund experiments with performance pay, would drop from $289 million to $230 million.

Funding for the School Improvement Grant program, which helps finance school turnaround, would remain steady at $506 million. Appropriators beefed up language in the spending bill that was originally included in last year's funding measure reiterating that schools have additional flexibility when it comes to turning themselves around: While turnaround proposals would still need to be vetted by the secretary, the school district could develop its own plan instead of using the four turnaround models provided by the administration.

An additional policy rider included in the funding measure would relax new school nutrition requirements set by the Obama administration—a major priority of First Lady Michelle Obama. The language specifically allows states to grant an exemption from the whole grain requirement for schools that show financial hardship of obtaining whole grains.

The bill also includes $840 million, an increase of $1.5 million, for TRIO, a slate of programs that help disadvantaged students access college, and a $5 million bump for charter schools.

In addition, the proposal includes $100 million, an increase of $1.6 million, to strengthen the capacity of the office of civil rights, which has recently beefed up its enforcement efforts.

Appropriators also included $75 million to maintain a school safety initiative that was new last year.

Importantly, the funding bill includes a new $14 million allocation for districts that are experiencing an increase of unaccompanied immigrant children in the 2014-15 school year.

Overall, the U.S Department of Education would be funded to the tune of $70.5 billion, a slight $133 million decrease from fiscal 2014.

"There is nothing shocking [with these numbers], but the reality is ... Title I and IDEA are still both below their pre-sequester levels," explained Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding. "We still haven't gotten all the way back to where we were in fiscal 2012," which was three years ago.

The sequester, Politics K-12 readers may remember, was the across-the-board cut for all federal agencies and programs.

"The problem we will face next year is that absent some effort by Congress to raise the caps, these are essentially the funding levels we'll see next year," Packer said.

Photo: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., who will take over as the new Senate majority leader when the 114th Congress convenes in January, is joined by Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, right, and Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., left, as he arrives to meet with reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

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