Bills that would greatly expand voluntary preschool programs for low- and moderate-income children were introduced in the Senate (details here) and the House of Representatives today. The House bill had a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. In the Senate, all public supporters are Democrats.
The legislation faces high hurdles. Congress is in the business of finding budget cuts these days, not investing more. Still, as the bills were unveiled today, supporters spoke about how they'd be a good long-term plan for improvements in American education and the economy.
President Barack Obama outlined a similar plan to support universal preschool earlier this year.
White House press secretary Jay Carney today said: "We applaud congressional leaders in both the House and Senate for introducing a bill today that would help realize the president's vision of high quality preschool for every American child."
Carney said that expanded preschool woudl give parents "safe places for their children to learn" and would be a start toward creating the educated work force the nation needs. "There's no better down payment towards that goal than a great early start to education," he said.
Also touting the new preschool bill was Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. Now chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Murray in the past worked as a preschool teacher. She said in a speech on the Senate floor today that in her classroom she saw that "when young children get the attention they need, they're miles ahead of their peers on the path to success."
Murray also told the story of her own entry into political life when the state of Washington, years ago, decided to cut a preschool program her children attended.
“So I bundled my children into the car and went off to the state capitol to explain to them why they just couldn’t cut this program," she said. “But when I got there the legislators told me there was nothing someone like me could do to save our preschool program. One legislator in particular told me I was just a mom in tennis shoes and I had no chance of changing things."
Murray went on to say that she called other parents, got organized, and eventually the state of Washington kept the preschool program in its budget.
Republicans have questioned the need for additional federal spending on early learning programs. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement today: "We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation necessary to succeed in school and in life. However, before investing in new federal early childhood initiatives, we should first examine opportunities to improve existing programs designed to help our nation’s most vulnerable children, such as Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant."
Kline said his committee planned a hearing in coming weeks "to discuss the challenges facing early childhood care and education in America."