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More Details on Obama Early Childhood Proposal = More Questions

Via Matt Yglesias, more details on the universal pre-k proposal from Tuesday's state of the union address. But still no word on the big question: How much does it cost, and how does the administration propose to pay for it? (apparently, we have to wait for the full budget proposal to find that out). Without a clear answer on that question--and offsets that are attractive to House Republicans--this isn't going anywhere.

Where there are answers here, they also raise more questions. For example, the cornerstone of the proposal appears to be:

a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty. The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based their share of four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families and funds would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program. The proposal would include an incentive for states to broaden participation in their public preschool program for additional middle-class families, which states may choose to reach and serve in a variety of ways, such as a sliding-scale arrangement.

Sharing costs with states is the kind of thing that sounds great in theory, but can get very thorny very quickly when it comes to practice. Presumably, it means that states would have to pony up some kind of state match in order to receive federal funds, although that's never clearly stated. The proposal does say that states would have to have state early learning standards, qualified teachers, and comprehensive data and assessment plans as a condition of pre-k funding, but not address matching or maintenance of effort requirements. A recent CAP paper, which appears to be a model for this proposal, calls for a dollar for dollar state federal match, however. The state financial commitment required here is a major question, with significant implications for both the program's political prospects and its hypothetical impacts.

For starters, how many states would actually be willing and able to match federal funding? Overall state pre-k spending has increased modestly in recent years, but several states have made significant cuts in pre-k and childcare spending. For example, Georgia, where the president visited a pre-k program yesterday, has shortened the preschool year and raised class sizes in response to budget constraints. Some states have cut services outright. Many states still struggle with weak fiscal conditions that make significant increases in state pre-k spending challenging. And conservative Republican governors and legislative majorities in many states are unlikely to be in a hurry to increase state spending for an Obama administration initiative. That means kids in states that have done the least on pre-k--such as Mississippi or Wyoming--may also be unlikely to benefit from new federal investments in these programs, despite considerable need in some of these states.

On the flip side, there's also the danger that poorly designed matching or "supplement not supplant" requirements (common in federal education programs) might inadvertently penalize the states that have already made the greatest investments in universal pre-k. That's both practically and politically important, since legislators from these states are more often more likely to be favorably inclined to pre-k, but less likely to support programs if they feel like their states are getting shortchanged relative to states that have not made similar commitments.

If the overall cost/new spending/offsets issue doesn't derail the universal pre-k conversation out the door, keep a close eye on these issues going forward.

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