President Obama released his blueprint for federal spending this week and it would be a shame if it flew under the radar in the Puget Sound region where attention is on state budget proposals in the Legislature.
Obama’s 2014 $3.77 trillion budget proposal tackles the national debt and that will garner most of the attention. But new, targeted investments in high-quality early learning are worth underscoring.
The White House proposes expanding preschool to cover all low- and middle-income 4-year-olds nationwide through a federal-state partnership backed by $66 billion over the next decade. The money would come from raising the federal cigarette tax from $1.01 to $1.95 per pack. This would be a huge game-changer in early learning policy. The preK expansion was singled out in a Washington Post political blog as one of the three best ideas in the president’s budget. There’s a reason for that.
Research shows that investing in high-quality preschool is the best public investment in education, saving school districts money down the road, to say nothing of money saved that would have been spent on drug prevention, child protection and juvenile justice. Seattle Times editorials have argued compellingly that the biggest objectives in public education are raising the high school graduation rates and preparing more students for college and careers. Both efforts begin with ensuring 3 and 4-year-olds have access to early learning programs run by experienced staff using engaging curriculum that prepares young minds for kindergarten. Students who participated in early childhood education programs did better in math and reading and have higher graduation rates.
A muscular federal early learning effort would dovetail nicely with ongoing efforts in Washington state, where a $60 million Race to the Top early learning federal grant is improving preK access and quality. Early learning is also a key prioriity in the 2013-15 biennial budget proposals by the state House and the Senate. Both the Democratic House and the Republican-led Senate plan to add slots to the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, the state’s equivalent of Head Start as well as expand full-day kindergarten. The Obama adminisration’s strategy is a familiar one, use federal dollars to spur states into creating full-day kindergarten policies and putting more emphasis on home visits as a part of early learning outreach. Washington state is already headed in that direction.
The devil is in the details and the budget accounting. A Wonkblog post questions whether the proposed level of support for early learning is sustainable given the nation’s falling smoking rates. But as the blog post points out, if ensuring all kids enter kindergarten having benefited from preschool is really important to this country, Congress ought to find a way to fund it.