Obama's universal preschool proposal: Game-changer or federal overreach?
President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he will push for universal preschool. Advocates say the plan could be transformational, but critics say it's too ambitious.
As part of a broader effort to strengthen the middle class, President Obama proposed making universal preschool education available to all children in America in his State of the Union address Tuesday, a policy he’ll underscore when he visits an early childhood learning center outside Atlanta Thursday.Skip to next paragraph
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In doing so, he has thrown his weight behind an idea that advocates say is perhaps the most cost effective way of heading off later problems among at-risk kids – from dropout rates to teen pregnancy. Libby Doggett, director of the Home Visiting Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts, called Mr. Obama's words a "watershed moment for our youngest children.”
But the seminal study on the beneficial effects of pre-K education is 40 years old, and critics say Obama's proposal is catering to education advocates, solving a problem that many American families don't rate highly.
Many questions remain about Obama's plan, including what such a program would cost. But Obama specifically referenced Georgia and Oklahoma, two states which make preschool available to every child, as examples of what he wants to accomplish.
“Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” Obama said. "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
The liberal think tank, Center for American Progress, released its own report days before the president’s speech. CAP’s plan has the federal government partnering with states to subsidize preschool based on income, matching state spending dollar-for-dollar up to $10,000 per child for full-day preschool. CAP estimates its plan would cost the federal government $98.4 billion over 10 years, assuming most of the costs would be paid for by states.
According to calculations by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), high-quality preschool education costs an average of $8,000 per child per year. This would make universal preschool for all 4-year-olds about $33 billion per year, and close to $70 billion for all 3- and 4-year-olds – not taking into account existing spending on pre-K.
Currently, about 80 percent of 4-year-olds attend preschools in the US, and about half of those attend public programs like state pre-K, federal Head Start, or special education, and the other half attend private programs, according to a 2008 State of Preschool report by NIEER. In Oklahoma, where parents have the option to send their 4-year-olds to the state-funded public pre-K, about 72 percent of families participate.
Still, the president’s proposal satisfies the demands of advocates rather than parents, says Grover Whitehurst, a director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.