Opinion
Education Opinion

Omnibus and Early Childhood

By Sara Mead — January 14, 2014 3 min read

As numerous media outlets are reporting, early childhood education, and particularly Head Start, are looking like winners in the ombnibus appropriations agreement reached by Congressional negotiators last night. A quick summary of what you know:

Head Start: The Omnibus would provide nearly $8.6 billion in funding for Head Start, which would not only restore funds cut from Head Start agencies by sequestration, but increase them by about $612 million above the pre-sequestration level. How will funds be used? Of the nearly $8.6 billion in funds, nearly $8.1 will be allocated through the existing Head Start formula (primarily for grants to existing grantees); $500 million will be used to support expansion of Head Start services for infants and toddlers; and $25 million will be available to the secretary to for supplementary allocations related to implementation of the Head Start Designation Renewal System. Restoring funding for current grantees: The bill also tweaks language in the Head Start funding formula to ensure that current Head Start grantees will have funds lost to sequester restored: Under existing Head Start act language, each Head Start grantee’s “base grant” is based on the funding it received in the “prior fiscal year.” The omnibus language changes this to base each grantee’s allocation on what it received in fiscal year 2012--ensuring that base grants for each agency in 2014 will be based on pre-, rather than post-sesqester funding levels. Of funds going to Head Start grantees, $100 million will be available to provide a cost of living adjustment for Head Start staff.

Race to the Top: The Omnibus would allocate $250 million for a new Race to the Top competition in FY 2014, all of which must be used to make competitive awards to states for improving early care and education services. The bill requires the administration to use the funds for an early childhood competition, but also permits them to focus the funds on a pre-k expansion competition (in contrast to the original RTT-Early Learning Challenge, which focused on 0-5 systems building). The bill also specifies that states that win these competitive grants may use them to make subgrants to school districts or early childhood providers to expand preschool services. Essentially, this bill authorizes a very mini version of the Obama administration’s pre-k proposal, as a competitive grant to states--so it’s a win for Obama on pre-k. But $250 million doesn’t go very far in supporting expanded pre-k access, so getting real impact out of this money will require creative policy thinking. It will be very interesting to see what kind of requirements and priorities the Department of Education puts forward for the program later this year.

Child Care: Although it’s gotten less attention than the Head Start and Race to the Top provisions, the Omnibus also includes an increase in federal funding for childcare subsidies to low-income parents, to $2.36 billion.

Overall, Head Start is the clear winner on early childhood funding in this bill, and the administration is going to get to declare a modest victory on its pre-k proposal, too. Three observations on this: 1) These increases suggest that the Head Start impact study hasn’t significantly undermined support in Congress for Head Start funding. 2) The success in restoring and securing increases in Head Start funding likely has something to do with the intensive media coverage of sequester-related cuts in Head Start services, which were among the most visible, local, and sympathetic victims of the sequester, and the presence of Head Start grantees in every Congressional district. 3) Of all the potential avenues for increasing early childhood funding, increasing Head Start funds appears to be the one that Congress is most open to at the moment--underscoring the importance of focusing on Head Start quality and effectiveness as a critical complement to any efforts to expand pre-k access.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.