President Barack Obama traveled to Decatur on Thursday to tout his plans to expand pre-kindergarten education nationwide — and spotlight local schools as a model for the country.
But the details and cost of Obama’s initiative remain in flux, and any new spending faces difficult odds against a deficit-conscious Congress.
The midday visit brought flocks of onlookers to DeKalb County’s side streets and shut down interstates as the presidential motorcade traveled from Dobbins Air Reserve Base. Obama, in his first visit to Georgia since June, played learning games with 4- and 5-year-olds at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center and then spoke at the Decatur Recreation Center about the need for universal pre-k.
“Hope is found in what works,” Obama said. “This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.”
The president didn’t address specifics in his speech, and White House officials said they won’t release details on the potential costs until budget time. Some have estimated the costs at upward of $100 million over 10 years, but White House officials said Thursday afternoon that the president will stick to his pledge not to add another dime to the deficit.
Groups that have been briefed on the president’s plan say he wants to have a continuum of high-quality early learning from birth to age 5, the years that researchers believe are most critical in human development.
The president’s plan would fund pre-kindergarten or some other type of preschool for 4-year-olds in families with incomes as high as 200 percent of the federal poverty level, $46,100 for a family of four. The current Head Start program generally serves kids from families at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $29,965 for a family of four. All states and the federal government would share in the expense, and there would be a sliding scale of payments for others to bring in more middle-class children.
Communities and child care providers also would be able to compete for grants to serve children ages 3 and younger. States receiving federal money would have to agree to certain requirements, such as setting limits on class sizes and on using high-quality teachers.
Local elected officials and educators dotted the crowd of about 600 for Obama’s speech. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb Democrat, was the only member of Congress in attendance. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett and former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland also attended and met with the president.
Obama’s Georgia visit was sandwiched in between trips to North Carolina and Chicago, all meant to amplify themes he included in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The president held up Georgia’s lottery-funded pre-k program as a national model.
“One of the things that you’ve done here in Decatur that’s wonderful also is, is that you’ve combined kids from different income levels; you’ve got disabled kids all in the same classroom, so we’re all learning together,” Obama said. “And what that means is, is that all the kids are being leveled up, and you’re not seeing some of that same stratification that you see that eventually leads to these massive achievement gaps.”
W. Steve Barnett, a national leader in early childhood education, said the president’s proposal is “exactly what is needed.”
“In a very short time, Georgia would push the ball across the goal line to serve every 4-year-old in a high-quality program because this would support reducing class size again and expanding enrollment,” Barnett said.
Bobby Cagle, the head of Georgia’s pre-k program, said state officials need to see more details
“We just need to have a great dialogue on what they intend and how they want us to get there,” he said.
Flexibility is key, Cagle said, because Georgia officials want to sustain the research-based program that the state launched 20 years ago with lottery proceeds.
“On the surface it looks good,” Cagle said of the president’s plan.
Even as Obama announced his new proposal, Gov. Nathan Deal renewed his call to Obama to give states more power and funding to run preschool programs themselves. The governor said the state can run the classes more efficiently than the White House, and that doing so would weave together the “quilt pattern” of state and federal funds that run preschool programs.
“If the federal government wants to put money into a program, why not put it into the hands of a state that has shown it can do it successfully,” he said.
Deal, a Republican, said he recently asked federal officials to release the funds to Georgia but has not received an answer.
“We get substantially less money for the pre-k program than is now currently being funneled into our Head Start program,” Deal said. “We believe if that money from the feds is allowed to be used, we would show better results.”
Ron Palmich, a longtime Atlantan now retired and living in Young Harris, agreed.
“Georgia has done just fine with its own program,” Palmich said. “Obama and the feds stepping in will only ruin a good thing.”
Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, said the president’s proposal seems to capture many of the best of Georgia’s existing programs.
“Georgia is in great shape to make great use of new federal dollars to expand access and quality to early childhood development and pre-k programs,” Willis said.
Georgia has long been considered a leader in early education. The state has invested nearly $5 billion over the past 20 years to put about 1.2 million 4-year-olds through its yearlong pre-k program.
Georgia was the first state in the nation to create a voluntary pre-k program that’s open to all children, regardless of income.