Obama pushes preschool plan, won't discuss cost

Friday - 2/15/2013, 4:00am EST

JOSH LEDERMAN
Associated Press

DECATUR, Ga. (AP) -- Raising hopes among parents who want preschool for all, President Barack Obama on Thursday rolled out a plan to vastly expand government-funded early childhood while keeping the price tag a secret.

Republicans, wary of high costs and questionable outcomes, made clear they have no intention of signing a blank check.

Setting up yet another clash with Republicans over spending and the proper scope of government, Obama in his State of the Union address proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every American child. Two days later, he played blocks and gave fist-bumps to kids in a preschool classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, casting the plan as part of a moral imperative to give every child a shot at success.

"The size of your paycheck shouldn't determine your child's future," Obama told about 600 teachers and parents at the Decatur Community Recreation Center, singling out Georgia as a model for making universal preschool a priority. "Let's fix this. Let's make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind."

The White House offered the first details about Obama's plan Thursday, describing it as a "continuum of high-quality early learning for a child, beginning at birth and continuing to age 5." The government would fund public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level -- a more generous threshold than the current Head Start program, which generally serves kids from families below 130 percent of the poverty line. All 50 states and the federal government would chip in.

Obama also proposed letting communities and child care providers compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth. And once a state has established its program for 4-year-olds, it can use funds from the program to offer full-day kindergarten, the plan says.

Conspicuously absent from Obama's plan were any details about the cost, a key concern among Republicans. Obama's aides have insisted the new programs would not add to the nation's nearly $16.5 trillion debt, but they won't say what else will be cut to offset the cost, offering only vague allusions to cutting entitlement spending and closing loopholes.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, two of Obama's top policy aides declined five times to explain how much the program would cost.

"Details on that will be released with the president releases his budget in the coming weeks," said Roberto Rodriguez, the White House's top education adviser. When asked again about the costs, officials went silent before a press aide joked: "Great, we'll take the next one."

The price tag for expanding preschool to more than 4 million 4-year-olds is potentially staggering. For instance, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, proposed a $10,000-a-child match to what states spend. That effort could cost tax payers almost $100 billion over 10 years.

Democrats and Republicans have already gridlocked over where to find $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade mandated by the so-called sequester; it's difficult to imagine they could reach consensus on those cuts plus agree on further cuts to offset expanded preschool.

In fact, the sequester cuts themselves could devastate current pre-kindergarten programs, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Thursday, if Congress doesn't find a way out by March 1, the date the cuts kick in. "Doing that to our most vulnerable children is education malpractice, economically foolish and morally indefensible," he told senators on Capitol Hill.

Weary of proposals by Obama they say blow up the cost and reach of federal government and still licking their wounds from November's election, Republicans are in no rush to sign off on Obama's preschool plan or any of a number of other initiatives he pitched in his address on Tuesday.

"That whole playing well with others, by the way, is a trait we could use more in Washington," Obama said to a mix of laughter and applause in Decatur. "Maybe we need to bring the teachers up every once in a while have some quiet time. Time out."

A day earlier, House Speaker John Boehner said involving the federal government in early childhood education was "a good way to screw it up," a sentiment echoed by Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House panel on education and said Obama must answer basic questions before expecting Republicans to get on board.