San Antonio.- President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia on Feb. 14. (Official White House Photo, Pete Souza)
Earlier this week in his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed expanding federal government’s role in education to work with the states “to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”
“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said.
To roll out the details of that plan, the President visited the successful Pre-K program at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Georgia in Decatur on Thursday. Visiting with students at the early learning center, he sketched out for the adults some particulars about how the new program to deliver high quality preschool to all kids in the U.S might work
"Let's make it a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality early education," Obama said in his remarks at the school. "Let's give our kids that chance.”
Basically, the President’s plan would provide free preschool for low- and moderate-income children up to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (that’s about $47,100 household income for a family of four) using a combination of federal and state dollars.
The nine pre-K classes at the model program Learning Center in Decatur are funded by the state’s lottery and not limited by income levels.
White House officials explained more about the proposed federal-state partnership in a press briefing on Thursday, but no information about the cost of the program was available.
Cecilia Muñoz, White House Domestic Policy Council Director, explained the details would be available as the President rolls out his budget in the coming weeks – but officials would not even venture to estimate the potential cost.
“I can say this. None of this adds a nickel to the deficit,” Muñoz said. “We’ve figured out a way to pay for it.”
“This has broad bipartisan support … it’s really something you can’t afford not to do,” she added during the call.
“It” is basically a strategy to leverage federal and state funds in a partnership to pay for a plan to provide early education to low-income and poor kids. According to Muñoz, just 3 out of 10 children are in high quality programs.
“And Head Start only serves children at 100 percent of poverty,” Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the President for education policy, added.
Rodriguez explained the government’s recommendation is based on research that shows a strong supply of high quality early learning and voluntary home-visiting programs show great success.
Ultimately, the plan is to reach all kids, from ages 0 to 6.
“The goal is to reach all kids… the cost-share arrangement is to reach the poorest kids, but [the overall plan is] designed to reach middle class families,” Muñoz added.
AFT President Randi Weingarten agrees with Obama’s early childhood education proposals.
“Investing in early childhood education is among the best investments we can make in a young child’s life. This one investment has the potential to boost graduation rates, ensure that children build a sound foundation in reading and math, reduce teen pregnancy and even reduce violent crime … It’s also one of the smartest and most strategic investments we can make -- every $1 we spend on high-quality early childhood education saves more than $7 later on. It’s a no-brainer: When you invest in early childhood education, you invest in our children, our economy and America’s future,” Weingarten writes.
But Maria Fitzpatrick, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University has published several studies on early childhood education and the effects of universal pre-K education, and she strongly disagrees with this approach.
“Universal preschool does increase enrollment in preschool, but only by about 15 percent. What this suggests is a large amount of spending on the programs - over 80 percent - goes to pay for preschool for families who would send their kids anyway and whose children likely have little to gain from participation … Evidence suggests that universal preschool has short-run positive effects on academic achievement for children, but the longer term results show that only some children gain - disadvantaged children, particularly those in rural areas - and that the effects fade out over time,” she explained.
The argument that the positive cognitive effects of preschool and HeadStart programs are short lived is also documented in a decades-long U.S. Health and Human Resources study, HeadStart Impact Study, Final Report January 2010, (www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/opre/hs_impact_study_final.pdf) which found that by the fourth grade, the pre-K “boost” is gone.
Angela Covo is a reporter for La Prensa de San Antonio. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.