President Obama visits the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center… (Johnny Crawford, Atlanta…)
DECATUR, Ga. — Crouching to sit in a tiny chair and handing out high-fives to 4-year-olds, President Obama toured a public preschool Thursday to promote his plan to expand access to free early childhood education — an initiative he argues would do more to improve the competitiveness of the American workforce than more expensive options.
"Before you know it, these kids are going to be moving on to bigger and better things in kindergarten, and they're going to be better prepared to succeed," Obama said after his visit to College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, one of several preschool programs the president pointed to as a model for his plan. "And what's more, I don't think you'll find a working parent in America who wouldn't appreciate the peace of mind that their child is in a safe, high-quality learning environment every single day."
Obama's preschool proposal was part of a long slate of policy goals he unveiled Tuesday in his State of the Union address, much of which was aimed at appealing to working families. It landed in an already crowded second-term agenda that faces strong resistance from Republicans in Congress.
The president ventured to a Republican-led state to try to sell the plan at a recreation center in this leafy Atlanta suburb, standing in front of teachers and beside a banner in primary-color block letters reading: "Preschool for all."
Obama's proposal does not ensure or mandate preschool for all, but instead encourages access to preschool for more. The program would be structured as a state-federal partnership under which federal money would be used to expand programs for 4-year-olds in low- and moderate-income families.
The program would provide incentives to states that chose to broaden access to families making more than double the poverty level. It would also offer incentives to states to broaden access to all-day kindergarten.
Universal preschool is the goal, said White House education policy advisor Roberto Rodriguez.
Few would argue with that goal, but plenty of Republicans and some policy experts questioned whether the country could afford it — and whether a new federal effort was needed to provide it.
The preschool movement is powered in part by research on pioneering programs over the last 40 years. Students who attended well-regarded programs have gone on to graduate from high school and avoid crime at higher rates.
But research also points to the importance of quality in those programs. The benefits sometimes evaporate in elementary school, experts say, depending on the design and standards of the early instruction.
"If you have a real emphasis on early reading and sound instruction in reading, that makes a huge difference," said Gene Hickok, a former deputy education secretary in the George W. Bush administration and now a senior advisor at the education consulting firm Whiteboard Advisors. "You have to make sure you're guaranteeing the quality."
Not surprisingly, early reactions from House Republicans have focused on cost and effectiveness. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) said he was wary of adding a new federal effort in an area already served by a tangle of state and federal programs.
"We haven't seen the president's budget," he said. "I don't know how he intends to pay for this. I can't begin to get behind another big-spending government program."
The White House says it won't give a price tag for the package until the president's budget is released next month. A similar proposal crafted by the liberal Center for American Progress came with a cost estimate of about $100 billion over 10 years, but the president has vowed that his proposals won't raise the deficit by a "single dime."
Aides said Obama would seek additional money for Head Start and Early Head Start programs focused on offering services to infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds, while states would take over a greater share of programs for 4-year-olds.
Obama's proposal also would provide competitive grants to improve Early Head Start programs aimed at the children younger than 3 and would make more federal money available for state-run programs that offer home visits from nurses and social workers to at-risk families with young children.
Whatever the cost, Obama argued that the investment would save money down the road.
"This is not baby-sitting," Obama said. "This is teaching."