President Barack Obama mentioned the phrase “child care” eight times in his State of the Union Address last night, notes the Wall Street Journal. That’s more often than he said the words “terrorist,” “middle class,” or “opportunity.”
Here’s the bulk of what the president said on the subject:
In today's economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever. It's not a nice-to-have —it's a must-have. It's time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or a women's issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us. And that's why my plan will make quality childcare more available, and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America — by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.
Since first bringing up universal preschool in his 2013 address, Obama has reserved some time to talk about the care and education of the under five set in each of his State of the Union speeches. And though an evaluation by PBS Newshour marked “universal preschool” as a previous SOTU policy proposal that saw “no action,” Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made a solid effort to preach the preschool gospel since then.
Duncan made preschool a standard part of his stump speech in 2013 and that hasn’t changed. A bill to vastly expand federal funding for state-run preschool programs ultimately went nowhere. But federal funding for early education has grown. After weathering the sequester, Head Start’s budget is on its way back. And funding for Early Head Start and nurse home visiting programs has increased. And, as regular readers of this blog will know, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 18 states had won a portion of $200 million to create or expand early education programs at a White House Summit on Early Education in December. The president also announced a new campaign, called Invest in US, that is meant to rally advocates around further development of public preschool options.
“The overall investment—some $750 million in new federal early-education money filtering out to the states—is still far short of the $75 billion, 10-year investment in preschool that the president has been urging lawmakers to adopt. And the new, Republican-controlled 114th Congress may be just as unlikely to follow that call as the Congress that just ended,” wrote my colleague, Christina Samuels, at the time.
What is particularly interesting about last night’s speech, then, is not Obama’s continued highlighting of the early years, but his use of the phrase “child care” rather than “preschool.” Literacy and kindergarten readiness did not come up. Instead Obama focused on the necessity of high-quality, affordable care for families with young children. This was in keeping with the other pro-worker ideas in his speech like paid sick time and maternity leave.
In 2013, he tied the idea of preschool more directly to student achievement and the economy:
But none of [these new jobs] will matter unless we also equip our citizens with the skills and training to fill those jobs. And that has to start at the earliest possible age. 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 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.
His 3 in 10 statistic likely hasn’t changed substantially in the three years since he first cited it, but with large public preschool programs springing up in places like New York City and Chicago, and smaller programs coming into being in cities like Indianapolis and Seattle, we may start to see a clear shift towards more enrolled children by the end of the president’s term.
If public preschool does continue to expand, how much credit will/should Obama get for it? What do you think?
Photo: President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill on on Jan. 20, in Washington. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applaud at right. --Mandel Ngan/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.