Obama pushes universal preschool in GA, GOP expresses doubts

U.S. President Barack Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights early childhood learning center in Decatur February...
U.S. President Barack Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights early childhood learning center in Decatur February...

President Obama is wasting no time pushing the proposals from his State of the Union.

The commander-in-chief visited a classroom in Decatur, Georgia on Thursday to expand on his plan for universal preschool.

After visiting a  pre-k class at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, where he played with children, Obama told an audience there that “education has to start at the earliest possible age, and that’s what you have realized here in Decatur.”

The Peach State implemented a much-touted program in 1995 which seeks to offer universal pre-K for kids across the state.

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Obama urged for the early education initiative, pointing to studies that show the sooner kids begin learning, the better they do down the road.

“But today, fewer than three in ten 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program,” the president said. “Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, the lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”

He repeated his argument in Decatur, adding “If you’re looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.” He also shared how tough it was for him and his wife, Michelle, to find good childcare for their two daughters.

“I remember how expensive it can be. The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn’t determine your child’s future,” he said to applause.

The president has revealed few details about what the plan would entail, including its total cost, what “high-quality” preschool entails, and if the program would be half or full days (a concern for many working parents). It would, of course, have to pass through Congress too.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, 45% of 4-year-olds and 20% of 3-year-olds went to state or federally funded preschool programs in 2011. That cost taxpayers about $5.49 billion, which averages out to about $4,800 for each child. So assuming costs stayed roughly the same, Obama’s initiative would easily cost tens of billions of dollars a year. Proponents of universal preschool, however, argue much of the cost would be offset by having more parents in the workforce.

The White House did release some information though, saying it would provide federal matching dollars to states wanting to provide preschool for every 4-year-olds whose family income is 200% or less of the federal poverty level. Obama also wants an expansion of Early Head Start to provide additional childcare and education programs for kids.

The program is not without its skeptics. House Speaker John Boehner said on Wednesday that the federal government getting involved in early childhood education is a “good way to screw it up.”

Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota wasn’t exactly thrilled either. The lawmaker, who chairs the House Education Committee released a statement saying “before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initaitives, such as Head Start.”

Chuck Todd, NBC’s chief White House correspondent and political director, told Hardball’s Chris Matthews on Wednesday night that the GOP is “going to end up looking on the wrong side” of issues Americans care most about if they keep criticizing initiatives like early education and raising the minimum wage.