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.
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