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Moving Quickly and Called 'Mandatory': What You Need to Know About the Federal Bill on Early Learning Grants

July 16, 2009 - 3:16pm

The early childhood community is just starting to digest yesterday's news about legislation in Congress that could provide a new stream of money for states setting up high-quality early learning systems. In the hubbub and coming analysis on the bill's details, we also shouldn't miss some important elements of not just what it says, but how it has been introduced. In other words, it's time to practice saying two words: reconciliation and mandatory.

The early education piece is a small section of much larger bill designed to overhaul the government's student loan program. That bill is a reconciliation bill, meaning that it is specifically designed to move through Congress much faster than your typical piece of legislation.

A reconciliation bill can be passed with a simple majority in the Senate -- and passed quickly. Instead of being the subject of seemingly endless discussion in the Senate, the bill can be debated for only a short, specified time before it is brought to a vote. (For a list of education policies adopted through reconciliation bills, see this post and analysis from our Education Policy team.)

Legislation adopted through the reconciliation process is separate and different from what goes on in the annual appropriations process -- the sausage-making exercise that Congress goes through each year as it determines which federal programs will get more money, which will get less and which will be zeroed out altogether.

That means, by nature, that a new program funded through reconciliation is a mandatory spending item. By contrast, a program that goes through the annual appropriations process is discretionary, meaning that there is no guarantee of funding until Congress acts.  Medicare, for example, is on the mandatory side of the budget. So are some portions of the Child Care and Development Fund, which provides funding to states for child care. But most education programs are on the discretionary side and can therefore be cut more easily.

It may be obvious by now why early education supporters should be happy to see the Early Learning Challenge Grant program being attached to this reconciliation bill. Not only is there a good chance for quick passage, given the Democratic majority in Congress that has traditionally advocated more early education spending, but if it passes, the program's future will be much more secure. It would not be on the annual chopping block, and would not have to compete with other programs each year. Its funding would be allotted for 2010 through 2014, the years covered by the reconciliation bill. 

That's not to say there aren't still hurdles to come. Nothing is guaranteed, and the bill is in its infancy. It still has to be passed by the House Education and Labor Committee and hasn't yet been introduced in the Senate's HELP committee. But it was born privileged and that will help. This is a bill that may grow up and make its way in the world more quickly, and with less financial stress, than many other legislative initiatives focused on education.