WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama visited a preschool in Georgia on Thursday to unveil details about his new plan to ensure that all 4-year-olds – including those whose families struggle to make ends meet – receive the same opportunities for a high quality early education.
Funded by federal and state tax dollars, the president’s plan would be a dramatic expansion of education for 4-year-olds, by making a year of optional preschool free for low- and moderate-income children.
“Hope is found in what works,” Obama said at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, part of Georgia’s widely available preschool program, funded by the state lottery. “This works. We know it works. If you’re looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it, right here.”
States would have to meet quality standards before they could apply for federal funds. The program would encourage states to assist middle-class families as well, possibly on a sliding scale. It also would expand early learning for infants and toddlers.
The goal, Obama said, would be to take advantage of the crucial learning period from birth to age 5 and close the achievement gap between poor children and their better-off peers.
Before he spoke to a room of adults, the president sat in a classroom with 16 4- and 5-year olds sitting at tables and busying themselves with blocks and iPads. Their self-portraits hung above them, fastened with clothespins.
At one table, the president sat in a child-sized chair and played with a magnifying glass with some of the children.
“This is sort of like ‘I Spy,’” he said. “I remember ‘I Spy.’”
The president’s proposal would offer public preschool to families who earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four – the equivalent of $46,100 annually (or $57,640 in Alaska).
Only 28 percent of 4-year-olds nationwide were enrolled in state-funded preschools in 2010-2011, according to the latest preschool survey from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
While preschool is the focus, the plan also includes an expanded Early Head Start for infants and toddlers, and an expansion of voluntary home visits by social workers and others for parenting education and support.
Congressional Republicans questioned in a news release on Thursday whether this expansion of early education would be effective and affordable.
“We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation they need to succeed in school and in life,” said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. But he added, “The president’s new early childhood education proposal should be carefully evaluated to ensure it will work for families and taxpayers without piling more debt on the backs of the children it is intended to benefit.”
White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Munoz said the funding details would not be disclosed until the president’s budget is released in several weeks.
“None of this adds a nickel to the deficit,” she said. “We’ve figured out a way to pay for it.”
The plan could have wide popular appeal, especially with working parents. The White House also claimed that it would save participants and taxpayers money at a rate of $7 to every dollar spent, through results such as less crime and more job opportunities.
“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool,” Obama told his audience. “And 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. And we all pay a price for that.”
The president said that he remembered from his own parenting that finding good child care can be hard, and expensive.
“The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn’t determine your child’s future,” he said. “So let’s fix this. Let’s make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind.”
States would have to meet certain benchmarks to qualify for federal preschool support under Obama’s plan, which would involve meeting state-level standards, employing qualified teachers and monitoring student learning.The federal government is already in the preschool business with Head Start, a program for low-income families with children from birth to age 5. Some studies have shown that the benefits of Head Start have a “fadeout” period by around third grade.
Kenneth Dodge, director of the Duke University Center for Child and Family Policy, said research studies show that preschool has positive effects as children enter kindergarten and elementary school.
“Then the question is how long the effects last,” he said. “But that depends on the school system they’re entering.”
A conservative policy would give money that otherwise would be spent on Head Start to parents so that they could put their children in private or church-based preschools, said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“Head Start has been a 48-year-long failed experiment with government preschool, and I’m afraid we’ll see more of the same, based on the president’s proposals,” Burke said.
She said birth to age 5 was a pivotal learning period, “which is why I wouldn’t want the government involved in such a critical time. We want children with families, with parents.”
Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an education advocacy group, said the quality care for disadvantaged children from birth to age 3, combined with expanded access to pre-kindergarten, was “exactly what has proven to work in early childhood education programs.”
“We know learning begins early, and it’s good common sense that you can’t start at 5 and expect children to catch up,” said Helen Blank, director of Child Care and Early Education at the National Women’s Law Center. “We’ve taken some steps, but we’ve got a long way to go to close the gap.”