Beginning with his State of the Union address last Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for a quality preschool education for every child in the United States several times this month. That early education, he says, is critical in keeping kids from falling behind before their education really even gets going.
'Education has to start at the earliest possible age," he told a gathering of teachers in Decatur, Georgia, on Thursday after meeting with local students. "We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."
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The president said the "true engine of economic growth" is a thriving middle class, and that young people who attend preschool have a solid foundation on which to build their lives. He said increasing preschool attendance would raise high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancy and violent crime, and make people more likely to hold stable jobs later in life.
Early childhood education is a particularly valuable tool for helping low-income, disadvantaged kids build a "ladder" to a middle-class life, the president noted. When poor children don't get a quality preschool education, it can affect their entire lives. "We all pay a price" for that, he said.
It's an idea that early education advocates have been pushing for years, but the path to universal preschool attendance is tricky and not everyone thinks it's a good idea.
Convincing a Congress already reeling from "fiscal cliff" negotiations that dropping more money into providing preschool education for the country's most vulnerable children will be difficult. A statement on the website of the Cato Institute, a think tank that advocates for limited government, alleges that any early childhood education benefits of preschool to low-income kids have been "few and fleeting."
"Public preschool for younger children is irresponsible, given the failure of the public school system to educate the children currently enrolled," the site says. "The desire to 'do something' for young children should be tempered by the facts, and proposals for universal preschool should be rejected." But according to a report from the progressive Center for American Progress, spending money on children early decreases the likelihood that they will be a burden later.
"Despite these benefits, some people will surely ask whether it's sensible to spend more money on preschool right now, just as we're trying to tighten our fiscal belts," reads the report. "This concern is understandable but misplaced. Studies show that investing money in high-quality preschool will actually improve our country's fiscal health by strengthening human capital, enhancing economic growth, increasing revenues, and decreasing future spending obligations."
Other studies say that there are some benefits but that they diminish by mid-elementary school.