- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2013

With much of Washington still focused on the White House’s ongoing scandals, a top Obama administration official Wednesday tried to shift attention back to a top policy priority: an ambitious expansion of prekindergarten programs.

The $75 billion proposal — funded largely through a huge hike on federal cigarette taxes — is central to the administration’s second-term education agenda. While there’s little appetite in Washington for more spending and even less desire among Republicans to give the federal government more power, Education Secretary Arne Duncan still believes he can bring together a “very interesting coalition” to push the proposal through Congress.

Education specialists and political observers disagree and give the plan little to no chance of becoming law, at least in its current form. But Mr. Duncan claimed that at least a handful of Republicans haven’t closed the door on the idea.

“I’m talking to a number of congressional House Republicans who are interested. You have an opportunity here that does not normally exist,” Mr. Duncan said at a pre-K forum hosted by the Brookings Institution. A variety of individuals and groups that often lean to the political right, such as CEOs and faith-based organizations, could be brought onboard because they understand the value of giving the nation’s youngest children the best chance at success, the secretary added.

“You can build a very, very interesting coalition that doesn’t exist on most issues,” he said. “It is unlikely allies that make me think there’s a real opportunity.”

The proposal would fund public preschool for children in a household with a total income below twice the poverty rate, or just less than $40,000 for a two-parent home with one child. Children from wealthier families could participate but parents would be required to kick in money.

States would take the lead on delivering the education itself, with the federal government gradually providing less money over the next decade.

After the federal money dries up in 10 years, states would still be required to continue the programs with parameters largely dictated from Washington.

Supporters call it one of the most significant advances ever for pre-K education, but others believe it’s a lofty goal that’s going nowhere fast.

Arne Duncan is going to say what he has to say, which is that this plan is not dead on arrival. But it’s still dead on arrival,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “I would be shocked if, in the current environment, House Republicans would go along creating a brand new, expensive federal entitlement on pre-K.”

There may be strong opposition to the president’s plan specifically, but Mr. Petrilli and others believe there is, in fact, a growing consensus around the importance of early childhood education. Numerous governors from both parties have pledged to increase funding for such programs within their states.

The question is whether states can fund expansion of pre-K education on their own, or whether federal money — and the federal strings that go along with that money — is a necessary piece of the puzzle.

“There isn’t nearly enough money in South Carolina to cover the kids who need to be in preschool,” said Linda Martin, South Carolina’s deputy state director for economic services. Ms. Martin also spoke at Wednesday’s Brookings forum.

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