Georgia and other states could get billions of dollars over the next decade to expand pre-kindergarten programs to 4-year-olds from moderate-income families under President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal.
The president’s plan, which was released Wednesday, calls for nearly doubling the federal tobacco tax to support a $75 billion investment in pre-kindergarten and other education initiatives for children as young as infants.
The White House plan is based, in part, on Georgia’s often-lauded, lottery-funded pre-k program, serving about 84,000 4-year-olds. The president visited College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur in February to pitch the plan, first unveiled in his State of the Union address.
Called “Preschool for All,” the plan calls for states and the federal government to work together to expand access to pre-k to families whose income is below 200 percent of the poverty limit, or less than $47,100 a year for a family of four. It also creates a new Early Head Start program for very young children.
The 10-year program would be fully funded by increasing tobacco taxes, including hiking the tax on a pack of cigarettes from $1.01 to $1.95, a move expected to face fierce opposition from the tobacco industry. But U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the administration will be touting the program’s potential benefits as well as the likely upsides of fewer smokers and lower health care costs.
“The president knows the best way to build and support a thriving middle class is through world-class education,” Duncan said during a briefing for reporters Wednesday afternoon.
“President Obama understands that the stubborn opportunity gap that confronts far too many American children and limits their life chances often begins even before they enter school,” the secretary said.
The $75 billion in early education initiatives, if approved, would be “the largest expansion of educational opportunities in the 21st century,” he said.
Next year, about $1.4 billion would be directed to helping states expand access to preschool and prekindergarten — potentially by as much as 20 percent in the first year.
Qualifying states could receive about 90 percent of the cost per child in the first year. The federal share would shrink each year and be down to about 25 percent by Year 10, officials said.
The administration isn’t anticipating that all states will participate in the first year, since states would be expected to meet a variety of quality standards to tap the federal funds. But Georgia should be well positioned to apply and receive funds in the first year, a U.S. Department of Education official said.
In addition, $750 million would go to preschool development grants to help states expand access to such services and improve program quality.
Nationally, three out of 10 4-year-olds have access to quality pre-kindergarten programs, which researchers have found can increase a child’s success in school and beyond.
In Georgia, about 53 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in the state’s voluntary, 20-year-old pre-kindergarten program. Pre-k costs are paid almost entirely with revenue from lottery ticket sales, and the state’s program received the highest rating possible last year when measured by 10 benchmarks of quality.
Bobby Cagle, who oversees the state’s pre-kindergarten program, had a briefing on the president’s initiative late Wednesday afternoon.
“Our goal has always been to serve as many children as possible,” said Cagle, commissioner of Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning. “From that perspective, we would love to see it enacted. It’s a matter of seeing how it is funded.”
He said federal officials in the briefing stressed numerous times that there will be a good bit of flexibility for the states.
“That is what we would really ask for – to allow us to do things we’ve done well on an ongoing basis.”
Republicans criticized Obama’s universal pre-K initiative as more spending at a time when government should be cutting back. Some Georgia leaders said the circumstances in the Peach State were unique and such a program shouldn’t be hijacked by the feds.
The new tobacco taxes also do not sit well with the GOP, which has steadfastly resisted any tax increases. In all, Obama’s budget estimates an increase in tax revenue of $580 billion over 10 years.
Jo Kirchner, chief executive officer of Acworth-based Primrose Schools, said the president’s initiatives have the potential to help children and the national economy.
“In the short-term, we will have children ready for school, and they will do better,” said Kirchner, whose company operates 260 schools in 17 states, 39 in Georgia. “In the long-term, the workforce pipeline will be better prepared to be more competitive.”
Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, said the great news is that, under the president’s plan, the state should be able to provide a higher level of service to more children.
“Combined with the new investment in Early Head Start, we have a chance to see most children ready for kindergarten by 2020,” Willis said.