Obama Continues Universal Preschool Push in Budget

WASHINGTON -- Making good on his State of the Union comments to provide “high quality preschool for every child,” President Obama this month put forward his budget proposal for the Department of Education that includes new funding to create and expand a nationwide preschool program.

The $71 billion request covers across-the-board increases to finance early learning, K-12 improvements, high school retention and career readiness, rewarding teachers and leaders, strengthening school safety, and other existing programs.

Speaking before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Education Secretary Arne Duncan noted that the U.S. lags behind other industrialized countries in education investment. More importantly, he stressed low-income students here have to deal with higher student-to-teacher ratios than kids at more prestigious schools.

“The United States has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in providing high-quality learning opportunities for young children,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Added Secretary Duncan in his address, “You won’t see our high-performing competitors funding education by sequester.”

But education experts are excited about the proposed Preschool for All, a federal-state collaboration to offer early learning to 4 year olds for families up to 200 percent of the poverty line, which will include both low- and moderate-income families.

The plan allots $1.3 billion for 2014 and $75 billion over the next 10 years. Another $750 million will be available for competitive Preschool Development Grants.

Secretary Duncan explained that “states would be required to meet quality benchmarks,” including a “plan to implement comprehensive assessment and data systems.”

According to Barnett, 40 states already operate pre-K education programs, but, he said, some do suffer in either providing enough access or offering programs of quality.

However, the federal Head Start program has been labeled in the past as being underfunded. But Barnett said he is optimistic that, since the president’s proposal require that states implement quality programs with teacher salaries that are adequate to hire effective teachers, it shouldn’t succumb to the demise of government spreading “too little money across too many voters.”

The president is hoping to fund the nationwide preschool plan by increasing taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. It does not foster perpetual federal funding, according to Barnett, but it will serve as a “means to jump start state efforts.”

“The funding formula decreases the federal match gradually over time,” Barnett said.