WASHINGTON – President Obama is pushing ahead with a proposal to establish a government-funded pre-kindergarten education program across the country to enhance learning opportunities for under-privileged and middle-class children despite critics who question the efficacy of the initiative.
Obama used his State of the Union address to extol the virtues of early childhood education and announced plans to provide opportunities for children as young as 3 to participate. He expanded on his proposal during a Feb. 14 speech in Decatur, Ga., asserting that “education has to start at the earliest possible age.”
The president claimed every dollar invested in high-quality pre-kindergarten education ultimately saves more than $7 by, among other things, boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, and reducing violent crime. Yet the U.S. isn’t offering enough kids educational opportunities at a time when they are “just sponges soaking stuff in.”
“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool,” Obama said. “And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives. And we all pay a price for that. And as I said, this is not speculation. Study after study shows the achievement gap starts off very young.”
The White House has released the outline of a plan that would expand pre-K access to practically every youngster in the country. The package comes without a specific price tag although some estimates have placed it at about $10 billion.
Obama is recommending the creation of a cost-sharing arrangement with the states through the U.S. Department of Education to offer early childhood education opportunities to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. States would receive an unspecified incentive if they included middle-class kids in the program.
In order to qualify for the federal monies states would be required to establish that their pre-K programs adopt standards for early learning, hire qualified teachers, and create an assessment program to chart success or failure. The states also would be encouraged under the proposal to set up all-day kindergarten programs.
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, reported that 39 states now offer state-funded pre-K, with 31 of those states having programs that are targeted for low-income families. The National Institute for Early Education Research, a research center at Rutgers University in New Jersey, reported that as of 2011 four percent of the nation’s 3-year-olds and 28 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in some sort of state-supported preschool education program totaling more than 1.3 million children. Only 12 states, according to NIEER, provided enough per-child funding to meet established quality standards.
Whitehurst said when children enrolled in Head Start and other public programs, including special education, are combined with those in state-funded pre-K, 42 percent of the nation’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in a taxpayer funded, center-based preschool programs.
“Even as the nation begins to emerge from the economic downturn, few states are adding significantly to enrollment and the educational quality of state pre-K is taking a backseat to budget cutting—even though the number of students who need good preschool programs has risen,” the organization said in its report, “The State of Pre-School 2011.”
Education experts generally lauded Obama’s proposal.
“Long ago, we mistakenly believed that children did not really learn anything until the ‘age of reason’ at 7,” said Kenneth Dodge, an expert on early childhood development at Duke University in Durham, NC. “Now we know that early experiences are crucial to lifelong outcomes. We now have evidence that high-quality preschool experiences improve academic outcomes that persist at least through third grade. If we are investing in education from kindergarten forward, we should invest in preschool as a way to improve those outcomes.”
W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said he was thrilled by the commitment from the White House.
“The president’s pre-K proposal would help states provide high-quality preschool education for low- and middle-income families, which is crucial considering that children of lower income groups start kindergarten more than a year behind in language and math than their upper income peers,” Barnett said.
“Among children from low-income families, more than one in three attends no preschool program at age 4 and most who do attend a program do not receive a high-quality education.”
The administration’s plan, he said, “will put children on an early path to success. This proposal improves opportunity for everyone, offering a hand up to lower and middle-income families that will help them reach the American dream.”
But support was hardly unanimous and there already is an indication that the White House package will encounter problems making it through the Republican-controlled House. Critics cite problems with Head Start, a Great Society program that offers education, health and nutrition services to low-income children and their families, as a reason to be wary of government-supported pre-K.