Not missing an opportunity to talk up his proposal to expand preschool, President Obama reiterated during a forum with Costa Rican business leaders and students that spending on early-childhood education “pays more dividends than almost anything you can do, educationally.” However, he also sounded a cautionary note, saying that while he planned to argue forcefully for a $75 billion, 10-year federal investment in early education, getting new money for programs is a “struggle.”
The president’s remarks were made on Saturday during a visit to INCAE Business School in San Jose, Costa Rica. Here’s the exchange, from the White House transcript:
Q: Good morning. I am a Central American from Costa Rica and I am also an MBA student from INCAE. My question is in relation with early-childhood support. There is strong consensus in Central America that ... early childhood support is one of the best investments our countries can make. Yet we are still struggling, trying to provide primary and secondary education coverage to the entire population, and even this is pushing the boundaries of our budgets. So my question is how can—or how should countries invest in this without sacrificing gains in other areas? Thank you. PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I'll just say very briefly that all the science shows that effective, high-quality early-childhood education pays more dividends than almost anything else you can do, educationally. Because if children get a good start, if they're read to, and their vocabulary is expanding, and they're taught their numbers and their colors and all the basic building blocks, then they're much more likely to succeed. And that's true in the United States; that's true here in Central America. So the way we think about early-childhood education is not just as an add-on to our overall education policy. What we're trying to argue in my administration is this is part of our entire education strategy. It starts when the child is born, and increasingly, in this knowledge-based economy, it's going to continue even after people have graduated from college, they're going to have to continue learning. You're right that paying for it is difficult and quality control is difficult. Good-quality early-childhood education is not just baby-sitting. It's having trained professionals who know how to stimulate very young children to give them the preparation that they need, which means setting up training programs and making sure they're adequately paid. ... [In] the United States, by the way, we don't have the kind of early-childhood education system that I think we should have. And when you compare what we do to some of the more advanced countries in the OECD, we're not where I want us to be. So what I did in the State of the Union [Address] was propose that we impose an additional federal tax on cigarettes in order to pay for an expansion for high-quality, universal early-childhood education. You get the real benefit of reducing smoking, which saves on our health care costs, at the same time as we're able to improve early-childhood education. Now, whether we're going to be able to get that passed or not, I don't know. It's always a struggle to get new revenue for worthy endeavors, but there's no bigger bang for the buck that you can get than making this investment in early-childhood education. So I'm going to keep on arguing for it forcefully.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.