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Education Opinion

State of the Union Calls for Universal Pre-k

By Sara Mead — February 12, 2013 1 min read

Big early childhood proposal in President Obama’s State of the Union address:

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.

Predictable excitement from early childhood advocates. But lots of unanswered questions here, namely:


  • What on earth does “working with states to make high-quality preschool available” mean?
  • How much does it cost?
  • How does the administration propose to pay for it? (Particularly given the President’s claim earlier in the speech that all the ideas to follow are “fully paid for” and will not increase the deficit?)
  • Does Congress have any appetite to do anything on this proposal?


I suspect we’ll see more information on the first three things shortly (perhaps in conjunction with the President’s scheduled trip to a Georgia preschool on Thursday). In the meantime, this CAP paper I blogged about earlier this week may provide a good clue.

One additional observation here:

The President’s apparent embrace of universal pre-k as a goal marks a shift from his first term early childhood agenda, which was much more focused on improving childcare quality along the birth to 5 continuum. Over the past decade, there’s been a bit of a split in early childhood between advocates of universal pre-k programs designed to prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for school, and advocates who focused on improving childcare and intervention supports for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers (particularly the most disadvantaged) without a specific emphasis on pre-k. In the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton came down on the pre-k side of that divide and Barack Obama on the birth-to-five side--and that approach was largely reflected in the President’s first term, with the signature Early Learning Challenge Grant program, inclusion of Nurse Home Visiting in the Affordable Care Act, and expansion of Early Head Start. Tonight’s speech seems towards an emphasis on pre-k. If that’s correct, what changed?

On the other hand, given that tonight’s speech focused primarily on early childhood, higher education, and high school reform with no mention of waivers, teacher effectiveness, school turnaround, Common Core, or other K-12 reform issues that were central to the first term Obama education reform agenda, maybe that’s not surprising after all.

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