Obama Preschool Expansion Plan Sees States Sharing Cost

President Barack Obama said expanding preschool nationwide and setting quality standards for early-learning programs eventually will cut costs by raising graduation rates and income potential for children from lower-and middle-income families.

Obama is calling on states to share the cost with the federal government of creating universal access to pre-kindergarten programs, an initiative he outlined in his State of the Union speech.

“This works,” Obama said today at a community center in Decatur, Georgia, after stopping at a pre-kindergarten class at the nearby College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. “If you are looking for good bang for your education buck, this is it, right here.”

The facility that the president visited, which has 340 children enrolled, is part of the city’s public charter school system. Georgia is one of five states that have a goal of offering preschool to all four-year-olds.

Administration officials have said the cost of the program will be outlined in the fiscal 2014 budget proposal that Obama plans to submit next month. Obama said in his Feb. 12 speech that the preschool expansion and other domestic programs won’t add to the federal deficit, which has exceeded $1 trillion in each of the past four years.

Expanding Access

The federal government would work with states “to provide low- and moderate-income four-year-old children with high-quality preschool,” according to a White House outline of the plan. The initiative also seeks to expand the availability of full-day kindergarten and give states incentives to boost preschool programs for middle-income families.

The preschool and kindergarten proposals are designed to strengthen long-term academic performance and employment prospects for millions of children, particularly from low-income families, according to the administration.

“Study after study shows the achievement gap starts very young,” Obama said. “We all pay a price for that. This is not speculation.”

Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, said the programs save $7 for every dollar spent by helping raise academic achievement and future earning potential.

Republican Reaction

The proposal faces skepticism in the Republican-controlled House. U.S. Representative John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said he had concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the program.

The government has “a poor track record of managing early childhood education initiatives,” the Minnesota Republican said today in a statement. “I am willing to have a serious dialogue with the administration if they are willing to offer less rhetoric and more facts.”

Only 10 states and the District of Columbia require districts to provide free, full-day kindergarten. 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.

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.

Program Costs

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 already budgeted annually.

“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,” Kline said.

Under the president’s plan, the early learning funds would be distributed to participating states by the Education Department based on their share of 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, according to the White House statement. The expansion would aim to reach all children of that age in households with incomes of as much as 200 percent of the federal poverty level, according to the statement.

To qualify for funding, states would be obliged to meet benchmarks such as state educational standards, having small class sizes and putting qualified and well-paid teachers in all preschool classrooms.

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