Preschool For All: President Obama's Pipe Dream or Possibility?

(Image credit: Johnny Crawford/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP Photo)

ATLANTA - President Obama's goal of guaranteed preschool education for every American 4-year-old is arguably the boldest proposal of his second term - a sweeping expansion of the nation's taxpayer-funded public school system, bigger than anything in a generation.

It would also be expensive - by one estimate, costing $10.5 billion a year. In Georgia, where universal pre-K access is already the goal, officials put the annual cost at $10,000 per child.

But today Obama argued here that a sea change in expert thinking about pre-primary education shows that the investment is worthwhile and overdue, promising social and economic benefits for years to come.

"This is not babysitting," Obama said at an event at a suburban recreation center to promote his plan.

"Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," he said. "But here's the thing: We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."

"The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn't determine your child's future. So let's fix this," he added.

Details of the plan and its exact price tag are still works in progress. But the White House points to Georgia - with its conservative, budget-conscious politics - as a model for the rest of the nation.

The state has been a pioneer in universal pre-K education since the 1990s, using funds from the state's lottery to expand early childhood programs and extend access to everyone. Most of the state's pre-K programs are essentially public-private partnerships.

"Universal pre-K is more difficult to do because you're opening it up to a larger group of children and that requires more funding. But Georgia has been doing this for 20 years," said Bobby Cagle, a Republican commissioner for the state's department of early care and learning.

The state currently has 84,000 four-year-olds enrolled in pre-K programs, but limited state funds have hampered efforts to keep up with demand. There are 8,000 kids on a waiting list, Cagle said.

The situation illustrates a major challenge facing Obama's goal of universal pre-K care.

"There are some families who opt not to do it - keeping children at home or in local programs that they are part of," said Paige McCay Kubik, a spokeswoman for Sheltering Arms Community and Family Centers, Georgia's oldest early childhood program at 125 years. "But funding is the top issue. … That's one of the reasons it's grown slowly."

Georgia's dismal high school graduation rate - just 67 percent, one of the worst in the country - also raises questions about whether expanding preprimary education will yield improved academic performance later on.

"The federal government has a poor track record of managing early childhood education initiatives, with mounting evidence that Head Start may not be helping students as much as we had hoped," said Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, who chairs the House Committee on Education, of the federal government's existing early childhood program targeting low-income families.

"We all want to give children a solid foundation for a bright future, but that also means we can't saddle them with even more debt," he added.

But Cagle said the high school graduation rate is an imperfect measure, urging patience in measuring the benefits of pre-K investment over a longer term.

Teachers and administrators on the front lines, including Kubik, say numerous recent top university studies are showing that enrolled pre-K students demonstrate stronger academic and life skills years down the road.

Not having high-quality adult interactions at age four, for example, can lead to "weak brain structure" and poorer performance on reading and math skills, several studies show. Experts say there's not much kids can do to make up for that lost time later on.

"What we're doing is part of the education continuum," said Kubik. "We're talking about cradle to career continuum, not just K-12. We're unquestionably helping them get ready for next step. "

Kubik said over the long term, children who had an early education background have had lower rates of divorce, lesser chances of ending up in jail, better career advancement and higher incomes.

"That the dollar we're investing is saving us money on what we're not spending in the future," she said.

As for political appetite in Washington for more spending on early childhood programs, advocates say bipartisan support on the state level - including from Georgia's GOP Gov. Nathan Deal - means Obama's plan should not be ruled "dead on arrival."

"The biggest thing is that we're seeing - it's not just educators getting behind this, it's business people, criminal justice people, even the military - talking about starting early," said Kubik.

Added Cagle, "I know there are a lot of issues around budget that need to be straightened out, but we lawmakers in Washington can come together."