{{show_title_date || "GOP senator: Universal pre-K a good idea, but money needed, 2/15/13, 7:00 PM ET"}}

GOP senator calls universal pre-K a ‘great idea,’ but questions funding


President Obama’s call for a nationwide universal pre-K program in his State of the Union address this week is “a great idea,” but the government must find a way to pay for the program that would not add to the deficit or force taxpayers to foot the bill, Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, said in an interview Saturday on Up w/ Chris Hayes.

“The thought that ran through my mind when the president was speaking is, ‘this is a great idea,’ but it is a 6% increase in the number of teachers you have to hire, the number of classrooms you have to build, the amount of money you have to spend,” Isakson said. “We’ve got to find the money to do it.”

Isakson is one of the first Republican lawmakers to react publicly to President Obama’s proposal, one of the biggest and perhaps most surprising elements of his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Iskason is from Georgia, which in 1995 became the first state to offer universal preschool to all of its four-year-olds.

So far, Republican lawmakers have mostly expressed skepticism about the president’s plan. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Wednesday that getting the federal government involved in early childhood education would be a “good way to screw it up.” And Rep. John Kline, Republican of Minnesota and chair of 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 initiatives, such as Head Start.”

Isakson seemed somewhat more open to the proposal as long as it could be funded without adding to the deficit or costing taxpayers. He recalled the origins of Georgia’s universal pre-K program in 1994, which was funded by a statewide lottery that required both a state constitutional amendment and ratification by Georgia voters. “We created a dedicated source of funds,” Isakson said,

Without a similar funding mechanism, Isakson added, the bill would likely be poorly received in Congress, where there’s little appetite on either side of aisle for programs that add to the deficit. President Obama himself made a point of emphasizing in his State of the Union address that none of his proposals would add to the deficit. The Center for American Progress has proposed a universal pre-K program that it says would cost $98 billion over 10 years.

“We can’t afford to add a cost on government. You have to find the funds to do it,” Isakson said. ”You can’t just hope the payback comes in dollars. The payback comes in a better life for those children, better quality of their health, better quality of their education. But we need a payback to pay the tax dollars it’s going to take to fund the programs.”

Additional reporting by Todd Cole.