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State of the Union Calls for Greater Access to Pre-K, Provides Few Details

Published:  February 13, 2013
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Graphic from the National Institute for Early Education Research's annual report on states funding preschool.

In a wide-ranging State of the Union address delivered to the full House and Senate last night, President Obama earned a long applause when he called for a new initiative to “work with states” to expand high-quality preschool to every American child.

The president’s rhetoric was short on specifics. A fact sheet produced by the White House gave little detail, but does call on Congress to ensure high-quality preschool programs are available to all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds; expand access to preschool to 4-year-olds from middle class families; and provide incentives for full-day kindergarten programs.

The focus on early learning had hardly been absent from President Obama’s first term; the 2009 stimulus bill temporarily expanded funding for Head Start, the government’s pre-K program for children in poverty, and created the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. But the scope and prominence of the new proposal could mark a shift.

Earlier in the decade, state spending on pre-K inched up, but in 2010-2011, as the recession put serious strain on budgets, state funding for preschool declined by $60 million adjusted for inflation, even as $127 million in federal pre-K funding streamed into states from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. On the whole, only 28 percent of four-year-olds and 4 percent of three-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded pre-K in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. (See chart below.)


In addition to  Head Start, the federal government funds special education services for preschool-aged children and provides funding for a small proportion of younger children and their mothers through Early Head Start. Ensuring high-quality pre-K is available for all low- and moderate-income children, as well as more middle-income children, will require a tremendous increase in capacity for overburdened early education providers -- and a far greater investment of resources from both the federal government and states.

There was some speculation before the address that the president might propose something along the lines of the Center for American Progress’ (CAP) new Investing in Our Children report. The CAP plan, though, is very ambitious and expensive. It includes a state-matching program of up to $10,000 per pre-K child annually, greater access for more children under the federal child care program, new quality measures for early learning programs and an expansion of Early Head Start. Its price tag comes close to $200 billion over 10 years.

The president was silent last night on whether more funds would be available, or from where. But given statutory restrictions on the next decade of federal spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011, a significantly larger early education investment from Congress seems out of reach.

President Obama’s mention of full-day kindergarten was an important addition, but also raised some questions. Here at Early Ed Watch, we’ve written about how the more-rigorous Common Core academic standards adopted by most states leave children in half-day kindergarten programs at a disadvantage. But most states don’t require school districts to offer full-day programs, and full-day kindergarten has fallen victim to budget cuts in many districts.

We were encouraged to hear the president devote a significant portion of one of his most-watched speeches to education (high schools and postsecondary education also got mentions). But we don’t know yet how the president plans to “work with states” to expand access to high-quality pre-K, or how Congress might implement a full-day kindergarten incentive program. Absent further details, we have to ask, where will Congress find the money?

The president has a trip planned to an Atlanta, Georgia early learning center on Thursday that may provide answers to some of our biggest questions. Check back with Early Ed Watch in the coming days for more thoughts.

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