Education Secretary Arne Duncan works to sell Obama administration’s preschool initiative

Rick West/AP/Daily Herald - Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits Streamwood High School in Streamwood, Ill. on May 15, 2013.

Arne Duncan woke at 5:30 a.m. in his Arlington County home, was driven to the airport and folded his 6-foot-5 frame into an aisle seat in coach. The education secretary buckled his seat belt and tilted his head back for a short flight to Atlanta, another stop in his uphill effort to sell the Obama administration’s next big idea: pre-kindergarten for every 4-year-old in the country.

The pitch on this day was to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican inclined toward the notion but dead-set against raising taxes to pay for it.

Duncan strode into an Atlanta preschool classroom, shook hands with Deal and joined the governor’s wife, Sandra, in reading “Roar!” to some wiggly 4-year-olds. Duncan called Deal an “amazing leader” and praised Georgia’s state-funded preschool program. He slipped in a reference to Deal’s mother, a first-grade teacher, and even said he wanted Sandra to join him on the road.

In the second term of the Obama administration, Arne Duncan is traveling to more locations than most other Cabinet members, save the secretary of state. With his plaid suit bag and his dark briefcase, the peripatetic Duncan is promoting an idea he says will improve millions of lives and strengthen the country.

It’s a different challenge for Duncan, who exploited luck and circumstance in the first term to carry out much of President Obama’s education agenda without help from Capitol Hill.

But now, Duncan needs Congress. In particular, he needs Republican lawmakers to approve $75 billion in new federal tobacco taxes to fund his early childhood education plan.

To cultivate that support, Duncan, a one-time professional basketball player, is playing an “outside-in” strategy. He is reaching out to Republican governors, hoping they will help him persuade GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill to embrace the “Preschool for All” initiative. But it’s a tall order for many Republican governors who are cool to the notion of new taxes.

In recent weeks, Duncan has traveled to Michigan, Georgia and Virginia and plans to visit Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio and Minnesota. Those states already use state money to fund some preschool, and Duncan figures that offers a path in.

“Governors get this because they have to deliver, they can’t just talk,” Duncan said in an interview on his way to the Atlanta school. “Can you get Washington to be more functional? That’s the challenge.”

If Duncan can succeed, he would deliver Obama a legacy-building victory that they believe could narrow the academic gap between poor and privileged children — a disparity that has budged little since it was first identified in 1966.

“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

With the time remaining in the Obama presidency, “this is the most important thing we could do,” Duncan added.

Hostility to tax proposal

In many ways, it’s hard for politicians to argue against the idea of helping small, wide-eyed children who leap with excitement at the alphabet song. But the dividends that come from preschool investment — higher rates of high school graduation and employment, lower rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy — don’t materialize until years down the line, way past the next election. And the idea of funding preschool by nearly doubling the federal tobacco tax — from $1.01 to $1.95 per pack of cigarettes — is anathema to many Republicans.

In the House, there is open hostility to the idea. “There is no chance of a tobacco tax to pass,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Even Deal, who would like to see more federal money flowing to the states for preschool, blanched at the idea of paying for it with higher taxes. “That’s a non-starter for me,” Deal said after the event he was headlining with Duncan.

Under the plan, the federal government would offer grants to states that choose to enroll 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The plan calls for the federal share to gradually diminish from 91 percent initially to 25 percent after 10 years. In addition to preschool, Obama is seeking $15 billion for education programs for babies and toddlers.

Advocates for early childhood education are organizing a national campaign led by the First Five Years Fund, which supports early childhood education programs for low-income children, and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank associated with the Obama administration. They have hired Jim Messina, the manager of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, to help devise a strategy and have created a “war room” in an office building on Capitol Hill.

“It’s one of the only social programs that’s come up in a really long time where there doesn’t seem to be vehement opposition,” said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund. “Other big questions about health care, gun safety — when they’re introduced, there’s a lot of controversy. What’s nice about early childhood education is there are a lot of Republican governors who do support it. That gives us a chance to create bipartisan support.”

Georgia, one of the first states to fund preschool, pays for it with lottery proceeds. But there’s not enough to meet demand; 8,000 children are on a waiting list.

Deal said that, instead of raising taxes, he’d like Congress to take some of the money used for Head Start, the federally run early childhood program for poor children, and give it to states to pay for preschool. “We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” Deal said.

While Duncan told Deal that he was open to creative ways to fund preschool expansion, he said that reprogramming existing funds won’t make enough difference.

“I’m talking about a massive influx of resources,” Duncan said at the event. “This isn’t about making changes on the margin. I’m not interested in symbolic victories. Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

Broad support

As part of his travels, Duncan went last month to the birthplace of the modern preschool movement, the Perry Child Development Center in Ypsilanti, Mich. In a widely cited ongoing study, researchers have been tracking a class of poor African Americans who attended the preschool in 1962. The study has found that, compared to peers who didn’t attend preschool, the Perry children have grown up to lead more stable and productive lives.

Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has invested heavily in preschool in his state, was Duncan’s tour guide in Ypsilanti. He called the secretary “a great guy. He’s done a wonderful job.” Duncan referred to Snyder as “fantastic.”

Still, no luck. “I don’t really involve myself in federal budget policy,” Snyder said this month when asked whether he would help Duncan sell the plan.

In Virginia, home of tobacco giant Altria, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) turned down an invitation to join Duncan last week at the New Bridge Learning Center in Henrico, saying he had a scheduling conflict. McDonnell dispatched his deputy secretary of education, Javaid Siddiqi, who failed to mention Obama’s preschool plan in his brief remarks.

A spokesman for McDonnell later said the governor shares the desire to expand preschool but objects to a new tax. Virginia’s program, also funded by the state lottery, currently serves about 16 percent of the 4-year-olds who live in the state.

In the cream-and-green gymnasium of the Henrico preschool, Duncan was flanked by executives from two major Virginia employers — Dominion Resources and Capital One — as well as a lieutenant colonel from the Army and a bishop from the United Methodist Church. All made the case for expanded preschool. Duncan intends to replicate that lineup — faith leaders, military officials, business executives — at all his appearances, to drive home the message that preschool has broad support.

“Lots of folks will tell you that you can’t get anything done in Washington,” Duncan said to the community leaders gathered in the Henrico gym. “If we are ever able to break through, what better issue than early childhood education? I think Washington will listen. If we come together, I think we honestly have a chance to make history.”

Four years ago, Duncan lucked into a windfall — $4.3 billion in stimulus funds from Congress to spend, largely without strings. The money was used to create Race to the Top, a nationwide competition in which cash-strapped states had to agree to adopt Obama’s favored education reforms in order to compete for a grant.

Along with money, Duncan had another powerful tool — an offer to free states from the punitive aspects of No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era federal education law, as long as they embraced Obama’s education reforms. Those included creating charter schools, evaluating teachers in part based on student test scores and adopting new academic standards.

Duncan’s first-term accomplishments make him arguably the most influential secretary in the education department’s short history and were a bipartisan bright spot for an administration struggling to govern amid bitter divisions.

Now, the stimulus money has been spent. Most states that sought waivers from No Child Left Behind have them. And Duncan’s bag of incentives is as empty as a classroom cubby on the last day of school.

All that remains are his determination and skills as a salesman.

“I’m in this for the long haul,” he said, as his SUV sped along a highway in Georgia.

 
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