Obama (Again) Calls for Pre-K Funding for States

Without Congressional support, Obama will depend on new Race to the Top funding for early childhood education and a coalition of influential people to find ideas for further investment.
by | January 29, 2014 AT 10:59 AM
President Obama plays with a young girl at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga.
President Obama plays with a young girl at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. MCT/Johnny Crawford

In a speech that was short on calls for sweeping legislation, President Barack Obama again asked Congress to fund a broad expansion of pre-kindergarten programs in his State of the Union address. He also pledged to bring together a coalition of leaders from business, government and philanthropy to come up with ways to bolster early childhood education.

Obama’s 2013 request for $75 billion over ten years to provide pre-K for poor-to-moderate-income 4-year-olds (living on as much as $47,000 in a family of four) went unheeded by Congress. But, as Obama noted in his address, 30 states made their own new investments in early childhood education last year.

If gubernatorial State of the State addresses are any indication, a number of states will consider new investments in pre-K this year. Although support for pre-K is generally higher in blue states, governors in Alabama and Georgia have called for more spending, joining states like New York and Pennsylvania. Some red states, including Florida, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma, actually provide pretty high funding for pre-K already. Some 98 percent of school districts offer the program in Oklahoma, and the state is ranked second in access for 4-year-old children by the National Institute for Early Education Research, though Oklahoma doesn’t serve 3-year-old kids.

New York has drawn the most notice this year for its pre-K program, both statewide and in New York City, where newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed for universal pre-K. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State that, though New York has a universal program in law, it’s only provided by two-thirds of school districts on average for two and a half hours per day. “We will expand the pre-k program to full-day pre-k, five hours,” he said. “And we will start with students in the lowest wealth school districts. Let’s do it today.”

Obama noted in his speech that his administration still has Race to the Top funding it can use to invest in early childhood education at the state level. The spending plan hashed out by Congress earlier this month includes $250 million in competitive grants to develop or improve local and state programs. While “Congress decides what it’s going to do” with the original 2013 request, Obama said he’ll form a group of influential and wealthy people to find ways to invest without the legislative branch of government.  

“And as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K that they need,” he said.  “It is right for America. We need to get this done.”