Following up on his pledge to expand early education to all American children, President Barack Obama proposed pumping $75 billion over the next 10 years into a “Preschool for All” initiative introduced in his fiscal year 2014 budget released Wednesday.
The program would start with a $1.3 billion investment in FY 2014, increasing in future years to total $75 billion by FY 2023. The goal would be to enroll all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds into high-quality preschool programs, while incentivizing states to extend access to middle-income families and above.
The White House expects 15 states to participate in the initiative in the first year, with all states joining by the third year. Twenty-eight percent of four-year-olds and only 4 percent of three-year-olds attended a public preschool program in 2011.
According to details released by the White House in February, the federal government would provide matching funds for states to enroll children in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level in early education. States would qualify for the federal match once they enroll at least 50 percent of their low-income and moderate-income children in pre-K, according to the White House's budget documents.
The state's contribution would start at 10 percent for the first two years, increasing to 40 percent by the fifth year. Those matches would be reduced to 5 percent and 30 percent, respectively, if states sought to extend access to families above the 200 percent line. The Education Department noted that this means the federal government will cover more than 80 percent of the costs of the initiative in the first five years.
The additional preschool funding would be paid for by increasing the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 to $1.95 as well as indexing the tax for inflation, which is projected to raise $78.1 billion over the next decade.
Obama also included $750 million in Preschool Development Grants, a competitive grant program, for FY 2014 to aid states in improving their preschool programs to meet high-quality standards.
The president’s budget is primarily a political document and never passed as written by Congress. But depending on how much of the preschool initiative is actually implemented and how many states take the White House up on its offer, it could represent a substantial new American investment in early education.
According to a report released this week by the Education Commission on the States, 16 states had either flat or decreased funding for pre-K in the 2012-2013 school year, and another 11 states didn’t have any public support for preschool. The other 23 states plus the District of Columbia increased their early education funding by varying degrees. The states collectively spent $5.3 billion on preschool for four-year-olds, according to the report.
Early education advocates hailed Obama’s commitment to universal preschool -- especially after investments in it stalled during and after the economic downturn -- when he announced it in his State of the Union address.
"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,” Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, told Governing at the time. "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."
Obama also proposed an additional $400 million in FY 2014 for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' home visiting program, which pays for nurses and social workers to meet with low-income families and connect them with resources to improve their children's health and early development. The budget then introduces a $15 billion long-term investment in home visiting that starts in FY 2015.