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FY 2016 Budget Could Leave Vulnerable Children at Risk

It might be slower than usual over on Capitol Hill these next few weeks as members of Congress and their staffers enjoy the last few weeks of summer recess, but both houses have their work cut out for them when they return. As summer comes to an end, so does the fiscal year, and the October 1st deadline to pass a spending bill is quickly approaching. Lauren Camera of EdWeek explains what options Congress has to avoid a government shutdown.

It’s likely that Congress will pass a short-term Continuing Resolution which will keep spending at its current levels and buy more time to broker a deal. Both the House and Senate appropriations committees have already passed appropriations bills that are below FY 2015 spending levels and follow the spending caps set by sequestration, but they haven’t gone to a vote before the full houses yet. Both chambers have set spending levels for the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) programs much lower than the President’s requested amount.

Back in February, when the Obama Administration released its FY 2016 budget request, our team wrote about what the proposed increased spending levels could mean for a host of ED and HHS programs. Here’s an overview of how some of the President’s more prominent education items fare under the current appropriations bills:

The Preschool Development Grants (PDG) program is part of the President’s Preschool for All initiative to expand pre-K access to all low- and moderate-income children. Specifically, this competitive grant program assists states in expanding access to high-quality pre-K for four-year-olds in selected high-need communities. It has proven to be a popular program in both red and blue states: 36 states applied for the PDG program last year. In December, 18 states were awarded grants. With only $250 million and 18 grantees, the awards were relatively small in size and funded states for the first of what was intended to be a four-year grant period. The Department of Education estimated that the grants would expand pre-K to 33,000 more children this fall.

By abruptly ending this program, Congress could halt the work that many states just began. Following through on the promise of a four-year grant period would require at least $250 million per year and currently the appropriations committees have allocated no money to this program. The President’s budget asks for $750 million for PDG in FY 2016 so that ED could not only continue funding the existing grantees, but also significantly increase the number of states receiving PDGs. Secretary Arne Duncan estimates that 100,000 children per year would lose access to public pre-K next year if this program is not funded.

The Obama Administration has been asking for $75 billion over 10 years in funding outside of the annual appropriations process (i.e. mandatory funding) to support Preschool for All for the last few years to no avail. The President proposed increasing the tobacco tax to fund this initiative, and thus is not addressed in the appropriations process.

The controversial SIG program aims to turn around the country’s lowest-performing schools through formula grants. The program has been around for many years, but it received a large funding boost and a makeover under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Department of Education originally allowed schools to choose between four turnaround models, but loosened the requirements last year at the insistence of Congress. The changes to the program included a larger focus on early education. The President, Senate committee, and House committee have very different visions for the future of the program.

For the first time, the Obama Administration called for a sizable increase in Title I formula funds, which support the needs of low-income students. Title I improves equity and more resources could help schools and districts better serve these high-need students. The House appropriations bill maintains the current funding level and the Senate bill offers a slight increase.

Excellent Educators Grants would replace and build upon the current Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a program first authorized by Congress in 2006 to support states and districts in implementing performance-based compensation systems linked to student outcomes in high-needs schools. The Obama administration proposed a $120 million increase to expand the program’s scope and support states and districts in implementing more comprehensive educator quality reforms. In addition to performance-based compensation, Excellent Educator Grants could be used for a variety of strategies to develop, support, advance, and reward great teaching in low-income schools.

But neither the House nor the Senate support the President’s plans for program expansion—the Senate budget cuts funding slightly, and the House budget would eliminate the TIF program entirely. The most recent TIF evaluation suggests the broader program scope could help improve implementation of performance-based compensation systems and increase educator satisfaction with the program. By cutting or eliminating the program, Congress could stall the work and plans states and districts have in place to continue and improve upon their TIF work.

English Language Acquisition Grants are used by states and districts to support the needs of English language learners. The Obama Administration proposed a $36 million increase in these grants. The number of English language learners entering school in the United States is rapidly growing and support for these students is limited, but neither the House nor Senate bills match Obama’s request. The Senate bill cuts funding for this program.

Obama’s budget proposes a $115 million increase in programs that support infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with special needs. The Senate appropriations budget calls for a slight increase in funds  and the House bill maintains the existing funding levels.

Head Start and Early Head Start provide comprehensive services to low-income families, serving pregnant women and children from birth to age five. Head Start is the nation’s largest early learning program, serving approximately one million children and families. Neither appropropriations bill is threatening to fund Head Start below its current levels. In fact, both bills slightly boost funding for the program. Both the House and Senate bills call for modest increases in Early Head Start funding.  The Obama Administration is calling for a similar increase in Early Head Start funding, specifically for the Early Head Start- Child Care partnerships.

However, the President’s budget also calls for $1.1 billion to increase the minimum “dosage” requirements so that all Head Start programs serve children for the full day and full year. Head Start has come under scrutiny in recent years because research indicates that the program doesn’t consistently produce the same level of gains as other high-quality early learning programs. More time in the classroom is associated with better outcomes and is one promising (but expensive) way to improve the program. Without this additional funding, it’s unclear whether HHS will keep the existing dosage requirements or will increase them and limit enrollment (HHS is accepting public comments on this and other changes to Head Start until mid-September).

Increasing access to and quality of child care has proven to be a rare area of bipartisan agreement in recent years. The Administration proposed to increase discretionary funding for the recently reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant by $266 million to implement the changes in the new law. The Senate committee asks for $150 million for this same purpose. The House committee wants to keep funding at its current levels.

What isn’t included in these bills is the President’s request to increase mandatory funding for the program by $80 million over ten years. The Administration predicts that this would expand child care assistance to over one million families by 2025. Obama’s budget also included substantial changesto the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to make care more affordable for families with a household income of up to $120,000. Since the larger tax credit would require a change in tax law, it isn’t addressed in the appropriations bills.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program, another important early childhood program that the President requested more funding for, also isn’t  mentioned in either appropriations bill because it is funded through mandatory spending. The program’s funding was threatenedearlier this year, but Congress reauthorized MIECHV a few days before it was set to expire and continued funding at its current level- $400 million.

We’ll have a better idea of what the future holds for these programs over the next few months as budget negotiations take place. Check back on EdCentral for more budget updates. "