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Obama Calls for Preschool Enrollment of 6 Million by 2020

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As far as presidential goal-setting goes, no one is likely to surpass John F. Kennedy's promise to put a man on the moon. But President Barack Obama added a goal last week that, while not quite so galactic in scope, could also prove highly ambitious: to have 6 million children enrolled in high-quality preschool by the end of 2020.

Here's exactly what Obama said while speaking at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois on Oct. 2:

"If we make high-quality preschool available to every child, not only will we give our kids a safe place to learn and grow while their parents go to work; we'll give them the start that they need to succeed in school, and earn higher wages, and form more stable families of their own. In fact, today, I'm setting a new goal:  By the end of this decade, let's enroll 6 million children in high-quality preschool. That is an achievable goal that we know will make our workforce stronger." Full remarks here.

The president did not specify whether children enrolled in private preschools would count toward this goal. If not, we have our work cut out for us: Only 2.1 million 3- and 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in state-funded or Head Start preschools, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. (The president also did not specify the exact ages he intended to see enrolled. I chose this age range because preschool is most often considered a program for 3- and 4-year-olds, and those are the ages the president has called out in the past.)

Enrolling 6 million 3- and 4-year-olds in publicly funded preschools would mean a majority of that population attended government-supported schools.  A rough estimate of the 3- and 4-year-old population in the United States based on the 2010 Census puts the total at around 8 million.

Last week's "new goal" builds on Obama's Preschool for All initiative first announced during his 2013 State of the Union Address, according to a White House spokesperson. However, she said, it's the first time the president has put a number on the goal of enrolling more children in preschool.

So far, the Preschool for All plan has mostly foundered in a Washington rent by partisan divides. Still, the president's budget proposals calling for more early-education funding and multiple congressional hearings on the Strong Start bill, which came out of the White House initiative, have made early education a popular topic in the capital. States have been consistently expanding their early-education programs since the president first brought it up in 2013, and Congress recently voted to increase Head Start funding after several years of stagnancy.

Tripling the public preschool enrollment in under 6 years will be no small task, and may well prove impossible. But a concrete number will give advocates something to shoot for and skeptics something to debate.

Image: President Barack Obama addresses an audience last week at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. —Nam Y. Huh/AP

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