Sen. Harkin: "Elementary education starts at birth."
The resurrection of the Early Learning Challenge Fund -- a proposal to improve the quality of early learning programs for children from birth to age 5 -- was among the first topics addressed today during a budget hearing with members of the U.S. Senate's appropriations subcommittee related to education.
"We've got to find a way to get it in this budget cycle," said Senator Tom Harkin in an exchange with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who testified at the hearing."We hope we can count on you" to help to find a way to include it, Harkin added.
Duncan responded with adamant agreement. "We cannot walk away from this," he said.
The challenge fund was designed to distribute $1-billion a year
through a competitive grant program to states. Many early childhood advocates were hopeful that it would be enacted as part of the student loan legislation, which was eventually combined in the reconciliation package that enabled the health bill to pass in March. It was left out of the bill
in the final days before the vote.
But despite the leaders' assurances, there are a lot of hurdles to cross before the fund might actually become part of the budget bill for fiscal year 2011. It will be hard to find dollars for a new program in today's deficit-reduction climate. And education advocates are already requesting emergency money to stave off teacher layoffs as states face big budget gaps.
Also, as Politico has reported
, the Democratic leadership may decline to craft a budget resolution during a tough election year, instead simply putting in spending caps or allocating set sums for each subcomittee's appropriations bills. The appropriations process – when subcommittees vote on exactly how much can be spent next year – will likely begin later this spring and summer. That’s when it will be time to pay close attention to see what will, and won’t, be funded.
On a positive note, however, Harkin, the chairman of the Senate committee with dominion over education policy, has been stressing the importance of early learning programs in several recent hearings on education reform. As he repeated again today: "Elementary education starts at birth."
UPDATE, 4/15: For more information on the education jobs bill to stave off teacher layoffs, see this post on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.