Obama Steps Up Competition for Lower-Income Federal Program

President Barack Obama said changes he’s ordering to the Head Start pre-school education program to require more rigorous competition for federal dollars will help make the program more effective.

“Early education is one of our best investments in America’s future, right out of the gate it helps prepare our kids for a competition that’s never been tougher,” Obama said after touring a Head Start center in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. That preparation is more important than ever because the U.S. is in economic competition with Europe and China, he said.

“This is an American priority,” Obama said. “It’s an economic imperative.”

The national program focuses on preschoolers from lower- income households to teach them reading and math skills before they enter elementary school. According to the White House, more than 24 million children have taken part in the program since Head Start started in 1965.

The changes will require all lower-performing Head Start programs to compete for funds instead of receiving the money automatically. The new benchmarks to determine eligibility will mean some programs that fail to show children are making academic program will lose funding. Grants will be reviewed every five years.

Tougher Standards

When asked whether the tougher standards could cause some programs to lose funding, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, “This is about improving the program by reforming it.”

Before making his remarks, Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius toured a classroom at the Yeadon Head Start Center. He played with 16 3-to-5-year-olds gathered around smaller circular tables. One group worked on putting together a puzzle, another played with blocks.

Today’s announcement is part of a series of initiatives the president is taking as he seeks to bypass Congress to take steps he says will help boost the economy.

With his $447 billion package of tax cuts and spending blocked by Republicans in Congress, Obama over the past two weeks has announced changes in a program to help homeowners refinance underwater mortgages, steps to help ease the burden of student loans and yesterday’s plan to help veterans find jobs.

“Republicans in Washington have been trying to gut our investments in education,” he said, citing opposition to a provision of his proposal that would give aid to states intended to stem teacher layoffs.

Key Electoral State

Obama’s trip today marks his 15th visit to the battleground state of Pennsylvania since taking office and comes one year before the 2012 presidential election.

Pennsylvania has 20 of the 270 electoral votes that Obama will need to win re-election. He carried the state in 2008 with 54.5 percent of the vote. Since then, Republicans have taken Pennsylvania’s governorship, a U.S. Senate seat and five U.S. House seats from Democrats.

The unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is 8.3 percent, below the national average of 9 percent in October. The state ranks 15th in the pace of its recovery from the recession, according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index. Mortgage delinquencies have declined over the past year and employment has increased.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kate Andersen Brower in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at kandersen7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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