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.

Although not prominent, the education budget also proposes to align student loan rates with current market rates and to again repeal the scheduled July 1 interest rate hikes, which were a cause of concern to millions of college students last year as well as a key talking point for Obama on the campaign trail. If successful the measure would keep interest rates on subsidized Stafford Loans from doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent.

Also, the budget has requested funding to improve school security, with an emphasis on emergency management and crisis response plans, including $25 million for Project Prevent grants to help schools break the cycle of violence within their communities.

Critics of the president’s overall budget request label it “overstuffed.”

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) called the budget “overstuffed with spending and tax increases that will continue to hinder economic growth.”

“Mandatory, auto-pilot spending on entitlement programs – the driver of our deficits and the root of our spending problem – must be substantially reformed to bring down costs, not just given a passing nod,” he said. “This, combined with the president’s proposed tax increases, will only perpetuate the nation’s deficits and debt, taking the nation further away from a balanced budget, financial stability, and economic growth."

The ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee decried Obama's budget as one that "raises taxes and never balances."

"There will have to be additional steps if we’re going to make a serious attempt to fix the debt and avoid having young Americans forever be known as the debt-paying generation," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).