The Washington Post

Obama touts plan for universal preschool

President Obama visited a preschool here Thursday to tout early education for all 4-year-olds from low- and modest-income families, part of a three-day campaign-style promotion of ideas outlined in his State of the Union address.

Reprising a theme from his speech two days earlier, he told an audience of teachers, parents and young students that “education has to start at the earliest possible age.”

Obama wants to guarantee preschool at age 4 for all children from poor and working-class backgrounds. He also wants to support local initiatives to provide education for middle-class children of the same age, as well as for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

Administration officials said the proposals were based on extensive economic research showing the importance of early childhood education and a growing recognition that the United States is falling behind in providing an adequate education for its youngest citizens.

“Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said at a recreation center near the preschool he visited. “For the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives.”

Pre-Kindergarten enrollment

The proposal has lifted the hopes of economists and liberals who have long considered early childhood education the best way to help close the gap between the rich and the poor. But the plan faces deep skepticism in Congress, particularly among Republicans.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) said in an interview with the Associated Press that getting the federal government involved in early childhood education is “a good way to screw it up.”

The White House said that the new federal-state program to guarantee preschool would assist 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. For a family of four, that would be $47,100 and below; for a single parent with two children, that would be $39,060 and below.

About 2 million children fit that criteria — 45 percent of preschoolers — although an infusion of federal and state funding could make the program’s reach far broader, experts said. Between 20 percent and 30 percent of 4-year-olds have access to a quality preschool program.

Officials did not specify how much the program would cost, saying that information would come in several weeks with the release of the president’s budget. Education experts estimate that such an effort could cost $10 billion to $25 billion a year.

Under the White House plan, the Education Department would allocate money to states based on their share of the population of 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The money would then be distributed to local school districts and other preschool providers. Additional funding could be made available to expand preschool options for middle-class families.

The White House said the preschool programs would have to meet quality standards, including teacher salaries that are comparable to those of educators in kindergarten through the 12th grade, small class sizes and rigorous evaluations.

Administration officials noted that of 38 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranks 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds attending preschool.

Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, said the administration’s proposal has the potential to transform education in the United States.

“It is one of the most important education initiatives, maybe since Brown versus Board of Education,” he said, referring to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that ruled public school segregation unconstitutional. “It’s a huge increase in educational opportunity.”

Barnett said that it would be better to provide universal preschool education starting at age 3 or 2, but that it makes sense to start at 4 given the available resources.

“It makes sense from a purely practical point of view to consolidate 4-year-olds before you move on to 3,” he said. “We know most of the achievement gap is present before kids get to kindergarten.”

The proposal is likely to face opposition in Congress, where Republicans are skeptical about costs and about whether such programs have a lasting impact.

“President Obama’s call to expand government preschool and child care is bad policy,” Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation, wrote in an analysis. “Instead of increasing federal spending on preschool and day care, the administration should be working to trim duplicative and ineffective programs, and leaving the provision of early childhood education and care to private providers and, most importantly, parents.”

Zachary A. Goldfarb is policy editor at The Washington Post.

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