Early learning may have hit the big time in the State of the Union last night.
Early in the speech, President Barack Obama called for universal access to high-quality preschool, giving early learning not only a top spot in the state of the union, but also on his agenda for the second term.
In those few minutes of well-received remarks, Obama took early learning out of the education policy arena and placed it squarely in the broader discussion about how to improve the economy and the nation. It was the first time in at least 40 years and maybe ever that a president featured preschool in his annual address to the nation, according to the First Five Years Fund.
President Obama’s strategy is clear. He is trying to position early learning as a main street issue, backed by mounting studies proving the effectiveness of high-quality child care and preschool, a stream of breakthroughs in neuroscience highlighting the importance of the first years of life and a growing population of American families where both parents work.
“It is a tipping point,” Kris Perry, head of the First Five Years Fund, said in an interview. “I am hopeful we can have a bipartisan conversation on early childhood education.”
The president’s proposal also was vague, but the White House did say it would support the efforts by states to expand access to preschool for low-income and moderate income children. (Obama may unveil more details in a stop at an Atlanta, Ga., preschool tomorrow.)
The President is proposing to work with Congress 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, and incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies, so that all children enter kindergarten prepared for academic success.
The proposal obviously raises huge questions. How would the president, for example, pay for an expansion of preschool that could cost billions of dollars a year? I didn’t see a lot of reaction from Republicans, though early education investments are enjoying support from governors in both parties this year.
“We have 29,000 students that are eligible for a program to get them into preschool. I don’t believe we can accomplish all that and I am hoping to come up with creative ideas to get there. But, I think it is important we make a major budget commitment to get as many kids as possible and get us on a path to getting all those kids in Great Start Early Childhood program,” Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has said.
These questions have analysts rushing to question how the president can get it done in the current fiscal climate of large federal deficits. (Check out Bellwether Education Partners’s “Four Reasons Pre-K Faces An Uphill Climb” and Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook’s “Tough Sledding on Pre-K Politics: Why Access and Quality Aren’t Easily Divorced” for good analysis.)
It is still far too early to predict how or even if a preschool expansion plan would move forward in Congress this year. But given current fiscal challenges, one potential vehicle is a budget reconciliation process that allows Congress and the White House to hammer out a comprehensive budget and tax deal. In this process, concerns about cost and in-fighting among advocates could be more easily addressed. (To help legislators understand the importance of early learning, two of the leading researchers in Washington state and the nation, Dr. Patricia Kuhl and Dr. Andrew Meltzoff at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Science (I-LABS), will participate in a congressional briefing on Feb. 28.)
But, focusing on the outlook of the president’s early learning plans overlooks the point of his emphasis last night. He used one of the most valuable rhetorical tools he has during his last four years, the first State of the Union of his second term, to talk about the importance of early learning. This elevates the issue to a level not seen in nearly half a century. And it gives his proposal a much better chance of becoming a reality in the next four years.
“It gets on all our radar and it elevates the topic,” said First Five Years Fund’s Perry.