Obama proposed a major expansion of preschool for all children, but it's unclear if he can deliver on it -- especially in a climate of ever-tightening budgets. Such an ambitious plan would have to clear a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, and would also have to make up for the effects of a likely sequestration that would cut into domestic spending, including education.
"He presented a vision for an ideal federal policy," said Charles Barone, the legislative director for Democrats for Education Reform, who spent years on the Hill crafting education bills. "But it's hard to see it happening."
Sara Mead, an early education analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, has similar doubts. "There's a big challenge to significantly increase spending on early childhood programs in the current fiscal climate," she said.
The proposal came with lofty rhetoric. "Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America," Obama said during the State of the Union. "Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance."
That promise is popular with the public and crucial for students. For decades, scholars and activists alike have stressed the importance and long-term impact of helping students succeed in their earliest years. Focusing on early childhood education after a first term full of K-12 reforms can help kids level the playing field before starting kindergarten. Countless studies have shown that low-income children start kindergarten further behind, simply because they're exposed to fewer words from birth than their wealthier peers.
James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist, has shown that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education yields a 7 to 10 percent return on investment. But fewer than half of three and four-year-olds across the country are in a pre-kindergarten program of any kind.
"Children face a real fork in the road at the end of third grade," said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. "If they're reading on grade level by third, they have one set of life chances. If they're not reading on grade level, if they're really struggling with the core components of education, reading, and logic, they have a different set of life circumstances."
Obama is expected to provide more details about his plan in a Thursday speech in a Decatur, Ga. early education center. Until then, all that is known is what Obama said in his speech and what was included in a blueprint released by the White House Tuesday night. The document said the plan will focus on preschool for "all low and moderate-income 4-year-old children" and a similar expansion for middle-class kids. The Huffington Post was first to report in January that Obama was weighing such a plan.
According to 2011 data from the Casey Foundation, there are currently 4.12 million 4-year-olds in the U.S., about half of whom are living below the poverty line.
"Fewer than three out of every 10 preschool age children have access to the type of high-quality program they need to reach this kind of benefit," Obama's education advisor Roberto Rodriguez said Tuesday night.
A similar plan priced by the Center for American Progress was estimated to cost $100 billion over 10 years.
For the plan to work, Barone said, "it would have to be pretty ingenious."
Some Democrats, such as education committee leaders Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (Calif.) immediately issued statements coming out in favor of the idea. But Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Education Committee, was less than enthusiastic. "Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start," he told HuffPost. "Too many questions remain unanswered."
Some have concerns that pre-K for all might be the wrong goal in this budget climate -- especially since poor students need the help most. "If you spread the money around to all kids, you won't have enough quality for all kids and low-income kids," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute. "Does it have to take a conservative to argue about the importance of focusing on lower-income kids?"
Steve Barnett, who directs the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, has an idea for making it work. If states provide pre-K to all students -- a big lift, considering states have cut $700 per student in pre-K funding over the last decade -- the federal government would match states' spending dollar for dollar on low-income kids.
He added, "It's potentially the biggest change in American education during our lifetimes."