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Reconciliation Bill Sets Sail Without Early Learning Challenge Grants

Published:  March 19, 2010
Publication Image

The health care reconciliation bill left the dock yesterday without the Early Learning Challenge Grants on board. But the bill does still include a proposal for states to create evidence-based home visitation programs to support low-income mothers and their babies. (Photo courtesy of

Eldan on Flickr

under Creative Commons license.)

The Early Learning Challenge Fund didn’t make the cut.

That was the news yesterday afternoon after release of the latest revisions to the health care bill. The fund, which was proposed as a competitive grant program for states to improve the quality of services to children birth to age 5, had been part of a larger bill on student-aid reform that Congress has attached to health care legislation.

Better news for advocates of children’s learning programs comes in the form of “home visitation,” a program for low-income mothers and their babies. The Senate’s proposal for that program is still part of the health care bill that is expected to move over the next week through an extremely divided Congress.

The 153-page bill released yesterday essentially makes fixes to the much-larger health care bill that passed the Senate in December. It has been designed as a “reconciliation” bill that must meet strict criteria for cost-savings for the federal government, according to budget rules. When the student-aid legislation was first proposed a year ago, it was designed to move through that "reconciliation" process because it grew out of the idea that an overhaul of federally funded student aid programs – in particular the elimination of a program that essentially subsidized private banks -- would generate $87 billion in savings. Proponents wanted to funnel those savings to the Pell Grant program that helps low-income students pay for college. By July, lawmakers in Congress decided to redirect those savings not only to Pell grants but also to the funding of new programs, including the Early Learning Challenge Fund.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives easily passed the student-aid legislation, and most observers expected that the Senate would quickly do the same. But then came the slow-down: Democratic leaders opted to wait, just in case they might need to turn the health care legislation into a reconciliation bill as well. As we now know, that is exactly what happened.

During the waiting period, however, that projected $87 billion in savings started to shrink. A few weeks ago, the Congressional Budget Office re-ran the numbers and determined that that the student-aid reforms would now save $61 billion instead. Why such a drop? Part of the reason comes down to the recession: there are now more families with incomes low enough to qualify for the grants and more students who are looking to attend school because they can’t find work. Administering the Pell program has therefore become more expensive.

Without as many dollars to work with – and with Democratic lawmakers wary of adding new programs that might weigh down the health care bill – Congressional leaders decided to give up on attempts at passing the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Other programs, such as one for school construction, were also cut out of the final bill.

So now, as a bill that reforms both health care and student aid is finally setting sail, a few hoped-for programs have been left at the dock. But home visitation has made it on board – a fact that should cheer advocates for evidence-based programs that support children’s healthy development. Early Ed Watch will continue to provide updates on its voyage.

(For more information on the student aid bill, don't miss the coverage on our sister blogs, Ed Money Watch and Higher Ed Watch.)

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