President Barack Obama is traveling to Georgia today to press a plan he announced in his State of the Union address to dramatically expand preschool. The plan would include smaller class sizes, better-paid teachers, and exams for 4-year-olds.
While the White House is beginning to circulate details on how to provide every child with preschool, crucial questions, including cost, remain. And because universal pre-K would likely require an act of Congress, questions may prevent the initiative from advancing amid tightening budgets.
As The Huffington Post was first to report in January, the new initiative would focus on providing preschool to 4-year-olds in families earning less than 200 percent of the poverty line. According to a fact sheet circulated by the White House for Thursday morning, the new program would include a "cost sharing partnership" that would "extend federal funds to expand high-quality preschool" for about 1.85 million kids. Standards for high quality include small class sizes and teachers paid comparable to K-12 public school teachers.
"We know this works," Obama said Tuesday night. "So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
The U.S. Department of Education would dole out money to states "based on their share of 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families" and states would distribute that money "to local school districts and other partner providers," according to the White House. The plan includes "an incentive" for states to also increase preschool access for more affluent families, but it is unclear exactly how that would work -- the document suggests a "sliding-scale arrangement" without going into further detail.
Obama promised during the State of the Union that none of his proposals would increase the deficit. A similar plan from the Center for American Progress was estimated to cost $100 billion over 10 years.
In order to get the federal money, states would be required to "ensure that children are enrolled in high-quality programs" by setting standards for early learning, having qualified teachers and "a plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems."
It's unclear how the government defines the quality metrics -- "small class size," "a rigorous curriculum," and a "well-trained" teacher, for example. It also remains to be determined whether these programs will be a part of K-12 public schools.
Advocates have questioned the focus on pre-kindergarten, when only six of 10 kindergarteners have full-day programs. The new plan would allow states to spend money to expand full-day kindergarten "once states have provided preschool" to low and middle-income 4-year-olds.
Obama is also promising more dollars to Head Start, the federal early education program that serves 800,000 children aged 3 and 4. The plan would create a new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program that would care for kids from infancy to age 3. These layers would be supplemented by an "evidence-based home visiting initiative" that would allow states to provide social workers and nurses to "at-risk families" to help them raise their youngest kids.