Damien Fowler, 4, playing a memory game with his teacher at the Nina Nicks Joseph Child Development Center in Mobile, Ala.
President Obama's call in his State of the Union address to "make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America" rallied advocates across the country who have long argued that inequity in education begins at a very young age.
In details that emerged early Thursday, the administration proposed that the federal government work with states to provide preschool for every 4-year-old from low- and moderate-income families. The President's plan also calls for expanding Early Head Start, the federal program designed to prepare children from low-income families for school, to broaden quality childcare for infants and toddlers.
While supporters herald the plans as a way to help level the playing field for children who do not have the advantages of daily bedtime stories, music lessons and counting games at home, critics argue that federal money could be squandered on ineffective programs.
In the 2010-11 school year, the latest year for which data is available, 28 percent of all four-year-olds in the United States were enrolled in state-financed preschool programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
According to W. Steven Barnett, director of the institute, which is based at Rutgers University, only five states, including Oklahoma and Georgia, have a stated objective of offering preschool slots to all 4-year-olds. While about 1.1 million students across the country are enrolled in federally financed Head Start programs and others attend private preschools, that still leaves millions of children on the sidelines.
The president's plan would provide federal matching dollars to states to provide public preschool slots for four-years olds whose families earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level. President Obama would also allocate extra funds for states to expand public pre-kindergarten slots for middle-class families, who could pay on a sliding scale of tuition.
President Obama's early education proposals come as a handful of states have been more aggressively pushing taxpayer-financed preschool.
In Alabama, for example, Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, has called for a $12.5 million increase -- or more than 60 percent -- in the state's preschool budget, with the eventual goal of increasing financing over 10 years to the point where every 4-year-old in the state could have a preschool slot.
The governor's proposal is supported by a coalition of early-education advocates and business leaders, who see preschool as an important component of future job readiness.
"We're trying to invest in a work force that can compete in 20 years with other states and other nations," said Allison de la Torre, executive director of the coalition, the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.
Alabama is one of only five states whose preschool program received top marks based on an assessment of its quality standards by the National Institute for Early Education Research, but only 6 percent of 4-year-olds there are enrolled in a state-financed preschool.
To receive state money in Alabama, a preschool must employ teachers with bachelor's degrees in early childhood education or child development, keep class sizes under 20 children, and follow a state-approved curriculum. The Obama administration is proposing similar standards for its federal matching program.
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SOURCE: The New York Times