Will Obama Really Make High-Quality Preschool ‘Available to Every Child in America?’

In his State of the Union address, the president focused on little learners and college students.

Obama hopes to make preschool a priority during his second term. (Photo: Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

When it comes to early childhood education, the stats aren’t pretty. In 2010-2011 alone, state funding for pre-K decreased by almost $60 million.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), “only 12 states could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards.”

This is what the NIEER calls “a crisis in quality.”

On Tuesday Obama addressed this crisis in his fifth State of the Union address.

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said as he introduced his education vision. “But today, fewer than three in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

Obama pointed out that poor children often lack access to preschool, and middle-class parents may not have the money to send their children to a private preschool.

He went on to say: “Tonight, I propose working with 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.”

A 2007 study by the National Bureau for Economic Research stated, “Early interventions that partially remediate the effects of adverse environments can reverse some of the harm of disadvantage and have a high economic return. They benefit not only the children themselves, but also their children, as well as society at large.”

Obama wants every state to have basic preschool for children and pointed to Georgia and Oklahoma as model examples. On Thursday, the president plans to visit Decatur, Georgia, in order to highlight his initiative. Georgia’s program, called DECAL, started using lottery funds in 1992 to create its pre-K program, which prepares four-year-olds for kindergarten.

Oklahoma’s program is number one in the country. More than 38,000 children—or about 75 percent of all four-year-olds—are enrolled in the program that began in the 1990s.

While early education is key for the president this term, so is higher education. He said the United States could do a better job educating students for employment.

“Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job,” Obama said.

He cited P-Tech in Brooklyn as an example of how other schools should model their programs for success. P-Tech, which opened in 2011, is a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM.

It is the first school in the nation that “connects high school, college, and the world of work through deep, meaningful partnerships,” according to its website. Students are paired with a mentor from IBM and are offered the first chance at a job with the company upon graduation.

But Obama also issued a challenge “to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.”

He wants schools “that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math” to be rewarded. But he failed to say by what means the school would receive rewards.

A passion of Obama’s since taking office has been financial aid reform for college students. He said on the 2012 campaign trail that he and First Lady Michelle Obama only paid back their student loans eight years ago, so he understands the situation better than most.

In 2010 Obama signed legislation that eliminated subsidies to private lenders, thereby making more money available to expand federal programs like Pell Grants. Last summer Obama signed a bill that extended the 3.4 percent interest rates on federally subsidized student loans for another year.

But he said on Tuesday night he now wants Congress “to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.”

The Obama Administration released a new “College Scorecard” on Wednesday in order for parents and students to compare college prices.

But for all of Obama’s ideas, he faces a steep uphill battle. After all, Congress already remains in gridlock over many issues, including reauthorizing or amending No Child Left Behind.

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