Obama Promotes Preschool Plan in Visit to Georgia

Yesterday President Obama spoke to a crowd in Decatur, GA, as he continued to rally support behind his push for accessible, affordable and high-quality early childhood education for all children in America.

Obama highlighted education in a large portion of Monday night's State of the Union address, focusing on affordability in higher education and the importance of encouraging technology in high schools in addition to encouraging improvements in our nation's preschools.

"Study after study shows the achievement gap starts off very young," Obama said. Children that enter kindergarten without previous schooling can easily fall behind, making it increasingly difficult for them to catch up over time.

Prior to giving his speech, Obama visited the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, one of several preschool programs the president pointed to as a model for his plan. "This is not babysitting. This is teaching," Obama said to the packed crowd, as he praised the teachers who were working with nearly 200 children, from all backgrounds and income levels.

The Plan

According to the White House, this new federal-state program would guarantee preschool for all children, and help families with 4-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. According to The Washington Post, about 2 million children in the U.S. fit this criteria, which is equivalent to about 45 percent of preschoolers.

Under this plan, the Department of Education would allocate money to states, who would then distribute it to local school districts and other preschool providers. The amount of money allocated to each state would be based on their share of the population of 4-year-olds from low and moderate-income families.

Other aspects of Obama's education agenda include the Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge, "a new competition that challenges states to transform their early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful education and training for early educators."

Additionally, the Obama administration hopes to reform and expand the Head Start program, increase the quality of child care through the Child Care Development Fund, and empower parents with the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, which provides $1.5 billion over 5 years in funding to expand evidence-based home visiting programs in states to serve the most vulnerable children and families.

Click here to learn more about Obama's plans to reform early childhood education.

Analysis

A small but growing number of states are starting to invest in early childhood education, in large part because of relatively new research on how critical those first few years of early childhood development are to a child's future success.

"People learn more in the first five years of life than they do in any other five-year period," said Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, to The Washington Post. "Kids are just like little sponges in the first 2,000 days," said Meltzoff.

Critics and skeptics of the administration's propossal are concerned that this program would add to the nation's deficit and increase the role of big government. At a time where the nation's budget is of constant concern on both sides of the aisle, many members of Congress are hesitant to support the president's plan until there are more details on the cost and how the government plans to fund the project.

House Speaker John Boehner said that the federal government getting involved in early childhood education is a "good way to screw it up." In a public statement, Representative John Kline, Republican from Minnesota and current chair of the House Education Committee, said, "Countless early-childhood programs already exist at the state and federal levels [...] The president needs to explain how this program will be different."

W. Steven Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, estimated that the president's plan could cost between $3 billion and $20 billion a year, calling the plan, "the biggest proposed change in American education since Brown v. the Board of Education."

Although cost must certainly be taken into consideration when implementing any new government plan, the rewards of an expanded and improved early childhood education system could arguably save the nation billions over time.

"Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on -- boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime," Obama said.

The famous Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in Chapel Hill, N.C are often cited as important studies that prove the value of an investment early childhood education. In these case studies, low-income African American children were randomly selected for high-quality preschool programs, and then their school performance, jobs and other life events were tracked over time.

Although the initial cost was high - roughly $90,000, in today's dollars - both studies show the investment paid off, as the children who received intervention earned more money and committed fewer crimes than those who did not receive preschool education.

Despite these successful studies, federally run programs like Head Start - which promote school readiness for children up to the age of 5 from low-income families - have shown mixed results. In fact, a report released by the Obama administration last year that followed children in the Head Start program even concluded that, "There were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of 3rd grade there were very few impacts found for either cohort in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health and parenting practices."

Obama will certainly face an uphill battle getting such an expansive plan passed through Congress. And the administration has yet to provide complete details into the cost of these proposed changes, or where the funding will come from.

Yet the simple fact that the president chose to highlight education, at all levels from pre-K through college, so early on in his second term, is reassuring for all those who are invested in improving the American education system.

A full transcript of Obama's speech can be read here.

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Sources: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, MSNBC

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