Does Obama's Early Education Proposal Have a Chance?

If early education is done well -- and the Obama plan builds in safeguards designed to assure quality -- there's abundant evidence that it's the smartest investment we can make in children's futures.
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Children's advocates high-fived when President Obama called for "high quality preschool" for "every child in America" in his State of the Union Address. The details of the plan are considerably more complicated -- for one thing, federal money would be used mainly for poor and working-class kids, though states would be encouraged to include middle-class youngsters as well; and for another, the proposal encompasses initiatives for infants and toddlers, like Early Head Start, as well as pre-k -- but the hosanna to preschool wasn't a throw-away line.

Since that speech, the president and his Cabinet emissaries have talked up first-class early education. In April the White House made a down-payment on the proposal, committing $370 million to the Early Learning Challenge, which rewards states for expanding early childhood initiatives.

As you might anticipate, conservatives deride the idea as another money-waster, claiming that there's no evidence to support the contention that preschool helps kids. It's just a "magical fantasy," sneered a Forbes columnist.

Republicans in Congress, fixated on shrinking the federal government, have been dubious about the prospects for any initiative that carries a price tag of $75 billion over the next decade. The "read-my-lips, no-new-taxes" contingent of lawmakers was outraged when the president proposed paying for the plan with a 94 cents a pack tax on cigarettes; and so, of course, were the thank-you-for-smoking lobbyists for Big Tobacco, who cast themselves as populists. "As middle-income Americans struggle to make ends meet in a very slow economic recovery period, this is not the time to hit them with higher taxes," complained Bryan Hatchell, a spokesman for Reynolds American Inc.

On this issue -- as with immigration, gun control, gay marriage and abortion rights -- conservatives are positioning themselves on the wrong side of history. (Department of full disclosure: as a member of the 2008 Presidential Transition Team, I was mainly responsible for shaping the early education agenda.)

If early education is done well -- and the Obama plan builds in safeguards designed to assure quality -- there's abundant evidence that it's the smartest investment we can make in children's futures. In several iconic studies, researchers have followed children who went to exemplary preschools well into adulthood. They report significant lasting benefits for those who attended pre-k, including greater educational achievement, higher earnings, reduced welfare costs and lower crime rates. Reviewing those studies, Nobel Laureate James Heckman estimates that every dollar spent on preschool will yield seven dollars in benefits to the children and the society, a rate of return that would make Warren Buffett envious.

Contemporary studies confirm these findings. A recent National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) fifth-grade follow-up report on poor New Jersey youngsters who attended well-financed and well-run preschools concluded that these youngsters are outperforming kids who didn't have that opportunity, making big gains in reading, math and science.

Making the issue of early education their own would help Republicans with women, who, after repeated GOP-bashing, have been migrating across the political divide; and subsidizing preschool for middle class families would broaden the appeal. Nearly two-thirds of mothers with children under age six are working and half of all working women return to the job before their infants are six months old. Many of these parents understand that the earliest years are crucial. They want professionals who understand child development, not just child-minders, caring for their kids.

At the state level, GOP politicians have gotten the message. Twenty-seven governors, including 14 Republicans, embraced preschool in their 2013 state-of-the-state addresses. Georgia and Oklahoma, not otherwise known for progressive social policies, were the first in the nation to launch well-designed statewide prekindergartens. Mississippi, with the nation's highest child poverty rate, recently passed legislation that will deliver preschool to 12 percent of four-year-olds; and NIEER reports that Alabama's program leads the nation in quality.

"If we don't change the trajectory this country is heading on in terms of K-12 delivery, we're going to have a very class-based society of haves and have-nots," Robert Benning argues, and while this sounds like Democratic boilerplate, Benning happens to be a Republican state senator from Indiana, where he chairs the education committee. Here's some unsolicited advice to erstwhile presidential candidate Chris Christie: Burnish your "compassionate conservative" credentials by proposing that New Jersey's much-lauded pre-k program go nationwide.

Inside the Beltway, where the presidential imprimatur virtually guarantees Republican opposition, it will take a lobby with muscle behind it to get Congress's attention. In the past children's advocates had a reputation for pettiness, petulance and political ineptitude. Here's how bad it got: At one point during the negotiations over the 2009 stimulus package, the Senate decimated children's programs -- the kids' organizations, each fixated on its own priorities, couldn't even agree on the wording of a letter protesting those cuts.

Lesson learned -- the children's lobby is coming of age. "Guns went off with the State of the Union," says Kris Perry, head of the First Five Years Fund, who's leading an expanded coalition of advocacy organizations. "Everyone is turning up the pressure." Jim Messina, who ran President Obama's 2012 campaign, and Delaware Republican Mike Castle, a former congressman and governor, have signed on, and they're running a war room-style operation.

The Center for American Progress, with its close White House ties, is now playing a key role. Too Small to Fail, an initiative launched by Hilary Clinton in conjunction with Next Generation, a San Francisco nonprofit, also figures prominently in the equation. And while pro-preschool Republican governors won't back anything with the president's name on it, they're telling Congress that their states need money from Washington to underwrite early education. Ready Nation, an organization whose mission is to bring businessmen into the fold, is busily recruiting these unlikely allies. "We've put together a task force of current and retired CEO's from Fortune 500 companies like Delta and Proctor & Gamble, and working with groups like the United Way that have ties to business," says Sara Watson, the organization's director.

With immigration and gun control on the agenda, the White House isn't pressing Congress to act. Few advocates believe that the lawmakers will give serious consideration to the president's proposal this year, though they fantasize that the birth-to-five agenda could become part of a much-bruited "grand bargain" on taxes and spending. In an effort to assure that the coalition doesn't fracture as the issue gathers steam, the advocacy groups are negotiating among themselves about which parts of the White House package -- prekindergarten, child care, Early Head Start and the like -- will receive top billing.

"The president has given us something to move on," says Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, who spent years as a congressional staffer. "Now the advocates have to agree on policy and build the national will to act. If the Hill is ever going to take us seriously, we've got to create a nationwide movement to push that policy." Sara Watson, a veteran of preschool campaigns in the states, is cautiously optimistic. "Within the advocacy community, people feel that this is the most exciting opportunity in a very long time -- and depending on who's the next president it could be the last opportunity for a very long time. We have to make a run at it."

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