The State of the Kindergarteners Should Be Strong

Flickr/US Army Africa

Obama gave the country a glimpse of his new pre-K initiative in last night State of the Union address—and reason to hope that he’ll bring the rest of the country toward the national models set by states such as Georgia and Oklahoma.

About halfway through the roughly hour-long speech, the President proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,”—an ambitious goal, given that only 27 percent of four-year-olds are currently in public pre-K. With his comment that “Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool”—which was met with an emphatic “that’s right” from the audience—Obama gave voice to a huge frustration of parents across the political spectrum.

Those close to the issue had already been tipped off to the new initiative at a January meeting with Health and Human Services official Linda Smith, who estimated that the expansion of pre-K would reach some 1.85 million children and cost as much as $10 billion.

In his two minutes on the topic, Obama couldn’t provide much detail about how he’ll get to this high bar, but a fact sheet circulated by the administration before the speech provides a few more details, specifically that the White House is aiming “to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach hundreds of thousands of additional middle-class children, while also incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies, so that all children enter kindergarten prepared for academic success.”

The next question, already alive on Twitter, is, of course, how we’ll pay for such a program. One answer might come from the Center for American Progress, which recently came out with its own proposal to expand early education. The plan entails expanding Head Start and pushing the federal government to match state spending up to $10,000 per child.

The other response to the question of cost? In the long run, early education saves money. Obama obliquely led with this thought by using jobs as a segue into the issue and then addressed it head on: “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.”

Here the President was citing a study of the Perry Preschool in Michigan in the 1970s. The extensive research on Perry found that, among low-income 3- and 4-year-olds who performed poorly on tests who participated in a good early education program, there was an incredible range of benefits, from less drinking and smoking to better test scores and higher lifetime earnings. In the final tally, every public dollar spent on that preschool yielded a savings of $7.16.

The critics of public pre-K have, for years, hammered on the point that there was only a very small group of Perry students. But in the past decade, early education proponents have amassed the evidence of the great benefits to four-year-olds that have been documented on the state level, too. Obama clearly gets this, pointing out two of our nation’s best—and best documented—pre-K successes:

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children—like Georgia or Oklahoma— studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

I’ve written about these studies in this magazine. There are reams of them, showing the benefits and cost-effectiveness of Oklahoma’s state-wide pre-K system, which has 75 percent of its four-year-olds enrolled and is both high quality and open to all.

Obama knows this research— and also knows that it can shut down the other weapon used against pre-K: that we don’t have enough evidence of its benefits. (This was the argument Mitt Romney used when he vetoed a 2006 Massachusetts bill that would have set up a statewide pre-K program).

“We know this works,” is how he wrapped up his pre-K plan. “So let's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

And if that didn’t adequately signal the administration’s emphasis on early education, Michele Obama had an Oklahoma pre-K teacher, Susan Bumgarner, sit with her to watch the speech. According to Bumgarner, this was “one of the greatest State of the Union speeches” ever.

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