President Obama to announce $1 billion in funding for preschool

At a summit Wednesday, the president is expected to announce measures that will include $500 million to expand Early Head Start programs and $250 million in federal grants to enroll 33,000 more children in preschool in 18 states.

Tim Post/Minnesota Public Radio/AP
Poppy Sundquist, a teaching assistant at Barack and Michelle Obama Elementary School in St. Paul, Minn., works with a preschool student on literacy skills in November.

America’s youngest learners are in the spotlight Wednesday, with President Obama hosting a summit on early childhood education and an announcement of more than $1 billion in federal and private money going to expand early-education opportunities.

It’s a major infusion of cash in an area that Obama has emphasized in his last two State of the Union speeches, and which still enjoys a fair amount of bipartisan support, particularly from state governors.

“The evidence is overwhelming. Offering high-quality early-learning opportunities is one of the best ways to ensure a bright future for our youth and ultimately, for our country,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

Secretary Duncan cited research from University of Chicago economist James Heckman showing that investments in high-quality preschool can pay dividends of seven times that investment down the road, through higher lifetime earnings and lessened social costs. “In how many other places do we see a seven-to-one [return on investment]?” Duncan asked.

Among the announcements that Obama and Duncan will make at the summit Wednesday:

• Some $250 million in federal preschool development grants, to help 18 winning states expand the reach of early education programs in high-need communities. The grants will help enroll more than 33,000 additional children in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia.  

• Up to $500 million in federal grants to expand and improve Early Head Start programs and child care partnerships.

• A new policy statement around preschool suspension and expulsion, aimed at curbing the high rates of these discipline strategies, especially for boys and children of color.

• The launch of a new philanthropic initiative, Invest in US, created by the nonprofit First Five Years Fund. The initiative is investing more than $330 million in private philanthropic dollars from individuals, foundations, and businesses to help expand high-quality early education opportunities, particularly in 10 key “early learning communities.”

“Demand is high and space is limited” for high-quality preschool programs, said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, in a call with reporters. “What we need is funding to bring programs to scale, continuous effort and continuous improvement.”

In addition to announcing the new funds and initiatives, the White House is calling attention in an even more focused way to the need in early childhood education – the US currently ranks 28th among OECD countries in terms of preschool access – as well as the potential for bipartisan agreement and economic return down the road.

On Wednesday, the White House released a new report on the economics of early-childhood investment, arguing that getting more children into high-quality early childhood programs can boost their future earnings, lower their future involvement with the criminal-justice system, reduce the need for remedial education, and improve income for parents, among other things.

“In total, the existing research suggests expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent, about half of which comes from increased earnings for children when they grow up,” the report says.

Even as he touted the new initiatives and gains in recent years, Duncan argued that it’s not enough and called on Congress to take more action.

“I’m really happy with how far we’ve come, but we have so far to go,” Duncan said. “We’re seeing tremendous interest from Republican and Democratic governors across the nation.… In the real world, this has become a totally bipartisan issue. This has yet to become a truly bipartisan issue here in Washington."

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