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Obama's Preschool Pitch: Vague, But Welcomed

Early-education advocates were breathless with anticipation last night: After weeks of hints from his administration about the wisdom of investing in early learning, President Barack Obama finally sketched out a proposal to "work with states" to expand preschool across the nation.

"Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime," he said.

(An aside: The Rand Corporation has synthesized the scientifically sound research on return of investment from early-childhood programs, and found a range of economic returns from about $1.80 per dollar invested to $17 per dollar invested. The $7 savings from $1 investment comment in the State of the Union speech may have been based on studies of the Perry Preschool program, which started in Ypsilanti, Mich. )

All that was missing from Obama's remarks were a few small details—such as when such a program would start, and how it would be funded. The White House released a blueprint after the speech that included a bit more information (see pages 4-5):

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.

Still no price tag, though such a program if implemented is likely to cost billions of dollars, as a recent early-childhood expansion proposal from the Center for American Progress outlined. Also, only 10 states and the District of Columbia currently require districts to provide free, full-day kindergarten.

And then there is the issue of "high quality." A recent government report on Head Start said that the advantages of the program for students tended to fade by the time children reached 3rd grade. Early-childhood advocates argue that the study doesn't track the long-term benefits of such programs; research on Perry Preschool, which has tracked participants well into their adulthood, has shown long-lasting benefits. But advocates also acknowledge that Head Start needs to focus on improving the quality of its grantees. The Office of Head Start has started a recompetition program to try to weed out low performers in the $8 billion program.

Despite those major open questions, advocacy groups cheered the attention given to early-childhood education. A few reactions:

The National Association for the Education of Young Children's executive director, Jerlean Daniel: "When families do not have the ability to afford child care, cannot enroll in Early Head Start or Head Start, or have no quality early-childhood options in their communities, we put families' economic security and children's positive development at risk."

The First Five Years Fund's executive director, Kris Perry: "We are thrilled that the President highlighted early childhood education and drew the connection between early investments in children and better education, health and economic outcomes that will increase productivity and reduce the need for social spending."

The National Head Start Association's executive director, Yasmina Vinci: "As the plan for expanding access to early education develops, it is essential we get it right, especially in times of tight budgets. It would be a disservice to all children if we assume that interventions for young children are one-size-fits-all."

Sara Mead, an education policy expert who blogs for Education Week, also offers her perspective on the benefits and challenges of the president's proposal. And my colleague Alyson Klein offers a look at all the education policy introduced in the State of the Union last night.

The president plans to visit a preschool in Georgia tomorrow, where we anticipate getting more details. But in the meantime, I'd like to ask my readers: What do you realistically hope to see from the White House?

Early Years is on Twitter! Follow @EarlyYearsEW.

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