Blog: The Educated Reporter

Federal Early Ed Spending Mini Primer

Ever since President Obama announced his administration’s intention to dramatically expand the services and the number of children who receive early education in the U.S., numerous reports, analyses, and a fair amount of pushback greeted the president’s proposal.

But missing from the hubbub was actual movement among federal lawmakers to make good on the White House’s plans.

In recent weeks, however, some early signs suggest Congress is serious about exploring a ramp-up of early education and care for the nation’s children. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who lead powerful committees in the Senate, are among a handful of lawmakers partnering to introduce a bill that embraces much of what President Obama called for in his State of the Union address. And earlier in July the Senate Appropriations committee approved a $1.6 billion expansion of Head Start with another $750 million for preschool development grants. The smaller sum would encourage states to build their own early education systems, a tenet of Obama’s universal pre-K proposal. The additional dollars were drawn from other federal programs.

[See EWA's Story Starter on Early Childhood]

But the odds of any Senate-backed measure winning approval in the House remain slim. Few education insiders who monitor the Hill believe Congress will get behind either a bill for universal pre-K or expanded appropriations funding.

Additionally, because of the Budget Control Act of 2011, Congress is beholden to self-imposed limits on how much it can spend. On top of that, a process known as sequestration snips a portion of the available money Congress can use to fund select programs. Democrats in general would like to do away with sequestration, but that would require legislation that both chambers of Congress would have to approve. Signs point to the House balking at that approach.

For now, the Senate-proposed budget calls for roughly $90 billion more in spending than the House version, a gap which represents nearly a tenth of the available money Congress told itself it could spend for 2014 fiscal year. As part of the BCA, the post-sequestration spending cap for the 2014 fiscal year is $967 billion. The White House’s budget proposal from April of this year also exceeds the House’s by roughly $90 billion, but it argues savings generated by programs in the budget would offset that difference over time.

Federal early education spending in the next fiscal year—which starts October 2013—could be lower. According to the budget caps established by the BCA, Congress will have $18 billion less to play with on non-discretionary and defense spending. However, lawmakers will have flexibility over what gets funded. If the fiscal rules that govern Congress don’t change, each subsequent year through 2021 will have deeper cuts but will take out a smaller percentage of overall spending. That’s because agencies will have increasingly larger budgets with each passing year. Still, at that pace, spending for non-defense discretionary funding will return to 2012 levels only by 2018.