If it has seemed quiet on the federal early learning front, don’t be fooled: that seeming lull was full of political jockeying and behind-the-scenes positioning that will set the stage for a long, tough battle for funding for programs like Head Start, the Early Learning Challenge, and child care.

Staffers on the appropriations subcommittees that set annual funding levels for those programs are drafting their bills now, in preparation for an accelerated process that could see the Senate taking up votes as early as next month. (For reference, the Senate rarely reaches this step before September.) Although the House process may not be as speedy, time is still of the essence. Why the rush? The next two months present this Congress’s last opportunity to get its work done. After July, the party conventions and election hullabaloo take over, with most legislation delayed until the post-election lame duck session. When the new Congress meets in January, it’ll be greeted by big problems, with $1.3 trillion in across-the-board spending cuts (the result of last year’s debt ceiling deals) due to take effect, the Bush tax cuts set to expire, and a thorny Medicare funding problem looming—a trio of crises that will set the stage for dramatic, high-level showdowns.

That means the window of opportunity for influencing funding decisions will be brief – so now is the time to use the arrows in your quiver to make the case for investing in early learning. Both chambers of Congress are heading out for Memorial Day recess, making this an ideal time for you to reach them while they’re home. Show up and ask questions at public events, write letters to the editor, engage your local business and civic leaders, reach out to staffers, and invite members to tour high-quality early learning programs in your area. It’s going to be a long and tough year, but your efforts really do make a difference.

The appropriations game isn’t the only plot still unfolding. When the Department of Education announced last month that $133 million would be available for five additional states to apply to join the state systems-building work of the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative, we cheered. Then we waited, expecting draft application criteria to be released this month. Now we’re hearing rumblings that the Department is considering a more formal and lengthy rulemaking process with a public comment period—a process that could delay by several months the states’ ability to begin their work and sustain the momentum they gained during the planning process. FFYF is working hard to make the case for a more expeditious route, and we will keep you posted as we hear more.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education is releasing something soon—its plan for the Race to the Top district competition. This new approach to Race to the Top will have some early learning component, and we’ll be tuned in to their webcast today at noon Eastern to see whether it’s the robust, responsible approach we’ve been advocating. After you watch, share your thoughts on the plan over at FFYF’s Starting Point blog—we want to hear what you think!

Finally, we wanted to make sure you saw this announcement launching a birth-to-five pilot for selected Head Start and Early Head Start competitions. It’s a small pilot, reaching just five areas, but it represents an exciting approach to breaking down silos and emphasizing continuity of care, innovative approaches, and responsiveness to community needs—and it’s a great testament to all the work you’ve done to help communicate what works for at-risk children. So keep at it, and remember that success like this can emerge even in the face of a tough year—and stay tuned for more updates as the appropriations process heats up.