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Fla.'s Race to Top Ambitions Tangled in Health Care Opposition

Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to have his state apply for up to $100 million through the latest edition of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition. But he will have to figure out a way around his state's previous opposition to the president's healthcare overhaul to do it.

The latest Race to the Top competition offers a total of $500 million to states to support improvements in early-childhood education. Thirty-six states, plus the District of Columbia, have told the U.S. Department of Education they intend to apply for the Early Learning Challenge grants.

The new competition is funded through the fiscal 2011 budget deal approved by Congress in April. (The previous, $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition was paid for through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the federal economic-stimulus program.)

But as a condition of applying for the new round of funding, states must have agreed to participate in the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program, which is part of the Obama administration-supported healthcare overall, approved by Congress last year. (See page 25 of the application linked, above.)

The problem: Florida's Republican-dominated legislature has rejected that funding because of objections to the law, which has drawn the ire of conservatives around the country, who regard it as federal overreach.

Scott, a Republican who is also a critic of the healthcare law (he's reportedly called it "an unconstitutional job killer") has been in talks with legislative leaders about getting spending authority for the home-visitation grant, so that the state would become eligible to apply for the early-learning money, said a spokeswoman for the governor, Amy Graham.

The issue has to go before the state's Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which is scheduled to meet in September on the issue, according to the governor's office.

"[W]e think Florida is well-positioned to receive the award," Graham said in an e-mail. "These funds would allow Florida to further improve the quality of school readiness programs, the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten program, the Head Start program and school-aged (or after-school) programs."

Florida won $700 million through the earlier round of the Race to the Top program. Scott has spoken out against federal stimulus spending, though the new money does not tap that source.

The early learning funds do not involve "recurring funds," Graham said, and would not be used "to create new government programs/positions."

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