DECATUR, Ga. — Taking his push for expanded early childhood education to a deeply red state, President Obama on Thursday called on Congress to enact a sweeping program to extend preschool classes to every child in the U.S.
"Education has to start at the earliest possible age," Mr. Obama told several hundred people at a community center in DeKalb County, Ga. "Fewer than 3 in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. We all pay a price for that."
The president said every dollar invested in early childhood education will save $7 later on by reducing rates of imprisonment, teen pregnancy and other social problems.
"If you're looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it," Mr. Obama said. "This is not baby-sitting."
But critics believe the program may be yet another expensive federal program with dubious results, while others fear the idea could lead to standardized testing for preschool children.
The initiative is part of the president's ambitious second-term agenda, laid out in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. It joins the Race to the Top federal grant program, the state waiver system to replace No Child Left Behind, and other steps in the White House's education track record.
It's unclear, however, how much the program will cost.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest wouldn't reveal the price tag, saying it would be detailed in the fiscal 2014 budget, due out next month. He said the cost would be covered by other revenue and would not add to the budget deficit.
Many in the education community praised the idea Thursday, calling it a major step forward for the nation's youngest students.
"The president's statements have brought early education to the national stage. ... Let's make sure none of our children start the race of life a step behind," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
For families at or below 200 percent of poverty, the White House is proposing a cost-sharing program between the federal government and all 50 states. Proponents believe that provision, and the proposal as a whole, will level the playing field for low-income students.
"It puts our children on a solid path for success both in school and in life," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "When you invest in early childhood education, you invest in our children, our economy and America's future."
But she questioned whether the administration's requirement that states have in place a "rigorous curriculum" could be seen as a call to test preschool students.
"The president is absolutely right to say we need to have high standards, a rigorous curriculum and evaluation systems, but we can't imagine that the president is calling for testing 4-year-olds," Ms. Weingarten said. "We hope others do not misinterpret his proposals. ... [Successful pre-K programs] certainly are not focused on testing."
Republicans have their own concerns. Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said more research is needed.
"Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start," Mr. Kline said.
The trip to Georgia was an effort by the White House to demonstrate bipartisan support for the plan.
"States like Georgia and Oklahoma, which are states run by Republican governors, and routinely vote for Republican presidential candidates, by the way, have made important investments in the programs," Mr. Earnest told reporters. "So there's no reason it should get bogged down in partisan politics."
Before his speech, Mr. Obama visited a preschool in Decatur for a photo op as he played briefly with young students. The school is actually on winter break, but it reopened for the president's visit.
Mr. Obama said the children learn how to play well with others, "a trait we could use more of in Washington."
• Ben Wolfgang reported from Washington.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Dave Boyer is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times. A native of Allentown, Pa., Boyer worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 2002 to 2011 and also has covered Congress for the Times. He is a graduate of Penn State University. Boyer can be reached at email@example.com.
Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Your papers, please' must never be heard in America
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
We all eat, and food should be fun and healthful. Food Commune celebrates the food we eat, the people we eat with and the spirits we enjoy.
First over-the-counter column approved for fast and effective relief from even your worst media-induced headache.
A collection of reader guest articles, thoughts and opinions by Communities writers and breaking news and information.
Reflections on raising families in a holistic way -- with a focus on nutrition and alternative health.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall