Obama pushes for universal preschool
Published: Monday, February 25, 2013
Updated: Monday, April 22, 2013 21:04
President Barack Obama spent his Valentine’s Day at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., stacking blocks and singing songs with preschoolers before formally unveiling his proposal for universal preschool last Thursday.
The visit came two days after Obama delivered his State of the Union Address during which he said he would work with states to make high-quality early childhood education available to every child regardless of socio-economic background. He said less than 30 percent of children in the United States are currently enrolled in high-quality preschools.
In Decatur, Obama spoke to an audience of educators and parents and said he was impressed by states like Georgia and Oklahoma for making early childhood education a priority. He called for all states to follow their lead.
“Let’s make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind,” Obama said.
The proposal also involves offering competitive grants to communities to expand the availability of the government-funded education campaign Early Head Start, according to a White House press release. The program will help to make childcare providers more accessible for children from infancy to three years old of low-income families. The program would expand opportunities for voluntary home visiting from nurses, social workers and other professionals to support parents.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, 28 percent of the nation’s four-year-olds were enrolled in preschool in 2011, and the average cost was $4,847 per child.
Heidi Beck, project leader for New Directions Early Head Start, said the cost of the program would be astronomical but the potential expense would be worth it.
“Studies show that the money we put into early care and education is important and, in the back end, we don’t have to spend it in remedial work and prison and people get better jobs and all of that,” Beck said. “It’s where we should be spending our money.”
Cynthia Paris, director of the university’s laboratory preschool, said she worries about both funding and how the program will measure success. She said more education is not as important as the quality of that education.
The program should not focus on just academic success but also social, emotional and physical achievement, Paris said. She said she would like a chance to offer her perspective in Washington.
“We who are professionals in the field with knowledge of what the practice of high quality programming looks like–we’ve got a lot to offer in this conversation,” Paris said. “It’s going to be important that we get a place at the table at the federal level to contribute to this.”
Paris also said advocates for less government involvement in education would object to the program. Still, she said she is optimistic about the program’s implications for future children.
“Nothing but good can come from national attention on the importance of the early years,” Paris said. “That’s just extraordinary.”
Paris said she and other educators advocate for more attention to a child’s early years because success in preschool is often indicative of success later in life.
Junior secondary education major Katie Alexander said the earlier families expose children to experiences outside their comfort zone, the more likely they are to benefit from them. Preschool is important for providing those experiences, she said.
“It introduces kids to people who are different from them and teaches them how to make connections, how to react to someone taking your blocks from you,” Alexander said. “If you start building those experiences earlier, then you’re going to be better prepared for social interactions later.”
During his speech in Decatur, Obama said another facet of his plan is to give colleges incentive to keep costs down so that more potential education majors can afford to go to school and become qualified preschool teachers.
Junior early childhood education major Angela Tier said she felt most excited about this part of the plan. She said teachers often have modest salaries.
“You tell people your major, and they’re like, ‘Oh, good luck paying off your loans,’ and that’s not a very encouraging thing,” Tier said.
Tier said she hopes the proposal will attract more people to majoring in early childhood education. She said the plan would make it easier for early childhood teachers to teach, as students would be on similar academic and developmental levels by the time they get to kindergarten.
President Obama also listed these benefits and said to his Decatur audience this proposal should be a no-brainer for Congress to pass.
“Hope is found in what works,” Obama said. “This works. We know it works. If you’re looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it. Right here.”
Beck said she is not as confident in the fate of the proposal, but the discussion is a big step forward.
“This Congress is hard to judge,” Beck said. “But I think what’s exciting is that the President’s talking about it, so we as a nation are talking about it.”