By Kathleen Hennessey
10:37 AM EST, February 14, 2013
DECATUR, Ga. – President Obama is due to visit a pre-kindergarten class in the Atlanta area Thursday to push for his proposal to make preschool available to all children, an idea he argues would do more to improve competitiveness of the American workforce than other, more expensive options.
This is Day Two of Obama’s tour to promote his second-term agenda, which he unveiled Tuesday in his State of the Union address and is trying to sell in day trips outside Washington.
Aides say Obama believes he can find Republican support for economic proposals like these. Georgia is the second red state of the week, following his Wednesday trip to a North Carolina factory to talk about boosting U.S. manufacturing.
But Republicans are reacting coolly to the president’s broader economic plan and its emphasis on increasing government investment in such programs.
Obama’s preschool proposal is structured with that Republican criticism in mind. The White House says the president’s plan is not merely an expansion of Head Start, the large federally funded early childhood education program that has drawn fire from Republicans and some experts who question its long-term effectiveness and inconsistent quality.
Instead, Obama is proposing a “cost-sharing partnership” that sends federal money to school districts and other providers that offer public preschool for low- and moderate-income families, according to details released by the White House on Thursday. Only 30 percent of 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in such programs, the White House said.
The Department of Education would distribute the money based on the share of 4-year-olds from families at or below 200% of the poverty level. To reach families making more, Obama wants to offer additional federal incentives that would encourage states to expand the programs.
The plan also would provide incentives for states to expand all-day kindergarten programs, which are currently available to 60% of kindergartners in the U.S., the White House said.
Eligible preschool programs would have to meet some quality standards, the White House said, including class-size limits, teacher qualification requirements and data assessment and review program.
The White House said it would continue to seek additional money for Head Start and Early Head Start programs focused on offering care to infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds, while the state programs take over a greater share of 4-year-old programs.
Obama’s proposal would also provide competitive grants to improve Early Head Start programs aimed at the children under 3 years old and would make more federal money available for state-run programs that offer home visits from nurses and social workers to at-risk families with young children.
Obama’s proposal was praised by advocates for early childhood education, who argue that the investment in early schooling saves money later by reducing teen pregnancies, cutting crime and improving graduation rates.
But a Republican-led House of Representatives already fighting the administration to cut federal spending is unlikely to receive it warmly. The White House argues that its proposals would be paid for through other budget cutting and cost savings, and would not add to the deficit. But Republicans on Capitol Hill are likely to push for any such savings to go toward deficit reduction, not new programs.
Obama’s task this week is to gin up public support and pressure – a considerable challenge, given that he is essentially starting from scratch on the issue. Obama did not make early childhood programs a key part of his reelection platform and his education initiatives have so far been focused on improving elementary and high schools, as well as making college more affordable.