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SOTU: Advocates welcome Obama's proposal for universal preschool access

A preschool aged boy uses his recess time to play with a word puzzle.
A preschool aged boy uses his recess time to play with a word puzzle.
Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC

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There was a lot of anticipation from early childhood education advocates leading up to the President’s State of the Union address that he would announce a groundbreaking new education initiative for the country’s 3 and 4 year-olds.

He fell short. Or maybe it’s just the nature of the SOTU beast that details are sparse.

What pleased advocates was the President’s unequivocal statement of the need for “high-quality” preschool and a promise to work with the states to make this “available to every child in America.”

California’s State Superintendent at the Department of Education, Tom Torlakson, welcomed the President’s remarks, calling it a “new opportunity to partner with the Administration to give more children the opportunity to benefit from high-quality early education programs.”

California is home to nearly 11 percent of the nation’s preschool age children, and it has been hit hard by budget cuts to early education programs in recent years. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, $1 billion has been cut from California’s early education programs since the 2008-2009 fiscal year. That means about 110,000 children are not being served.

A recent report by the Los Angeles Children’s Data Network found that in L.A. County alone, “between 2008 and 2011, 1,400 (15 percent) licensed homes ceased providing child care and development services resulting in a loss of 11,200 family care spaces throughout the County.“

Yet for the state’s largest preschool advocacy group, Preschool California, President Obama’s mere mention of prioritizing some kind of universal preschool is, according to the group’s president, Catherine Atkin: “a recognition of the importance of getting every child ready for kindergarten.” Atkin said President Obama’s speech “puts wind in our sails in California.”

In the lead up to the State of the Union, there was much speculation that the White House was working on a plan similar to the one released in previous days by the liberal think tank, The Center for American Progress. It proposes the federal government match state spending up to $10,000 per child for full-day preschool, as well as increasing the child care subsidy to $7200 per child and doubling the amount of children with access to Early Head Start. However none of this detail was in the State of the Union speech.

Here's what the President did say with regards to Early Childhood Education:

"Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives."

"Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance."