Obama Draws Skeptics in Overhaul of Preschool to College

President Barack Obama’s call for a renewed federal push on education from preschool through college drew skepticism from Republicans and universities.

In his State of the Union address last night, Obama advocated for preschool for every 4-year-old. Citing crushing student debt, he reiterated a call to hold colleges accountable on cost, value and quality. The White House provided no cost estimates and few details.

“To grow our middle class, our citizens must have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require,” Obama said.

Obama’s plan could cost state and federal governments as much as $15 billion more a year for preschool costs and upend the higher-education industry, which has about $500 billion in annual revenue and 20 million students.

In a fact sheet distributed before the speech, the president proposed a state-federal partnership for preschool, with the U.S. government offering competitive grants. Each dollar invested in high-quality preschool saves $7 later on by increasing graduation rates, lowering teen pregnancy and reducing crime, Obama said, citing programs in Oklahoma and Georgia.

Only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently require districts to provide free, full-day kindergartens. Creating a challenge to the plan, Republicans have long been critical of the effectiveness of Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families dating to the 1960s.

‘First Review’

“Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start,” U.S. Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who heads the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement.

Universal preschool is no small matter because there are more than 4 million U.S. 4-year-olds. Quality programs can average $8,000 a child, according to Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at New America Foundation, a Washington-based policy group.

By Guernsey’s reckoning, states and the federal government would have to spend $10 billion to $15 billion a year more than the roughly $9 billion they are already budgeting annually.

“If we do this on the cheap, we’ll be wasting our money,” Guernsey said in a phone interview. “If children are not getting a high-quality experience, it may not make much of a difference in their school readiness and ability to learn how to learn.”

Student Aid

On the higher-education front, Obama took aim at the way the federal government doles out $150 billion a year in loans and grants for higher education.

The White House fact sheet said Obama will ask Congress to distribute that money to colleges in a way that promotes “the best return on investment” and incorporates affordability into college accreditation.

Colleges will be concerned if the U.S. government requires accrediting agencies, which ensure academic quality, to take a role in determining education cost, according to Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the Washington-based American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 college presidents.

“The risk would be if the Department of Education gets in the business of telling institutions what their tuitions should be,” Hartle said in a phone interview.

‘Bargaining Chips’

Kline went a step further, saying: “Federal student aid programs that are intended to help improve access to higher education should not be used as bargaining chips to impose federal price controls.”

Today, as part of the new effort, the administration released a “College Scorecard” to give students and families information about college costs and quality. Republicans support disclosure yet are concerned that the scoreboard could duplicate available information and add to colleges’ regulatory burden, Kline said.

In what could be part of the college cost-control plan, Obama last year said he wanted to use Perkins loans, a program for low-income families, as a lever for keeping tuition affordable. The administration’s plan would increase the Perkins program to $8.5 billion annually from $1 billion.

The government would then give more aid to colleges with moderate tuition increases and strong educational outcomes and yank funding from those with the highest increases.

Affordability Incentive

Last year, Obama proposed $1 billion in “Race to the Top” college grants, modeled after an elementary and high school program that pushed states to agree to the White House’s education agenda. Under the college version, states that pushed for affordability could win money. Colleges may view such a plan as a threat to their institutional autonomy, Hartle said.

Showing the bipartisan appeal of some cost-control efforts, a bill proposed by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat -- and co-sponsored by Florida’s Marco Rubio, who delivered the Republican response to Obama’s address -- would require that colleges disclose costs and debt and how much students can be expected to earn in the workforce. The legislation would establish state-based systems to link individual transcript data -- excluding information that would identify students -- to employment and earnings.