Details of Obama's Plan to Expand Early Education Emerge

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama pledged to support state efforts to expand early education access to all American children.
by | February 14, 2013

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama pledged to support state efforts to expand access to early education to all American children.

"Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind," the president said. "Let’s give our kids that chance."

Obama said he proposes "working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America." Few other specifics were immediately available, though the president is appearing in Georgia later this week and expected to talk in more detail about his early education plans.

Fewer than 3 in 10 American kids are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs, according to Obama during his address, and the White House later cited evidence that shows every $1 invested in early education results in $7 in additional revenue from higher earnings. Obama said in states that have already invested in early education, naming Georgia and Oklahoma, those investments have led to improved reading skills, reduced teen pregnancy and reduced violence.

Obama also said that most middle-class families can't afford to put their kids in private early ed programs, and the White House's guidance indicates the president's push will focus on getting more moderate and low-income kids enrolled in high-quality preschools.

The White House guidance also added that the president would work to incentivize states to offer full-day kindergarten as well, noting that only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently do.

Placing the early education proposals in the context of his proposals related to manufacturing, infrastructure and energy, Obama said expanding pre-K access needs to be a national priority.

"None of it will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs," he said. "And that has to start at the earliest possible age."

Early education advocates praised Obama's priorization of those programs, saying it represented a fundamental shift in federal policy for pre-K.

"What it makes it the biggest change in federal education policy in my lifetime is that it means that schools now starts at age 3," says Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "I think it has huge potential. It's a dramatic change in federal policy, and it puts states in a leadership role."

Though details will be forthcoming, Barnett expects the new federal policies will closely mirror proposals released by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with ties to the White House, last week. (The Associated Press described the plans in depth.)

One of the cornerstones of that proposal is federal matching funds for states to place young children in high-quality preschools. That financial incentive should spur states that saw their pushes toward universal pre-K stall during the recession, Barnett says -- Iowa, Indiana, Texas and Tennessee to name just a few.

"There was already a lot going on in the states. The finances were always the problem, and the recession just doubled down on the problem," he says. "They just got stuck. But I think we will see a dramatic growth pretty quickly because these states were poised to do it. Now the federal government has put its thumb on the scale."

UPDATE: More specifics on Obama's plan are starting to emerge as the president heads to Georgia Thursday to outline his proposal in full. Slate has the full text. Here are some of the key details:

  • The federal government will provide states with matching funds to enroll children up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level in high-quality preschools. The funds will be allocated across states based on their share of children who fall in that income range.
  • High-quality programs are: those meeting state standards for early learning; those with qualified teachers; and those with plans to implement data-driven assessments of their success.
  • Those matching funds can also be used by states to expand access to full-day kindergarten

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, White House officials said that details on the funding match that Obama is proposing will be included in the president's budget.

A word cloud of President Obama's State of the Union address:

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