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President Obama made an unprecedented called for universal preschool in his State of the Union address Tuesday, while insisting that all of his proposals will not add to the country’s deficit. He also challenged states to re-imagine high schools, and pledged to hold colleges accountable for keeping costs down.
Obama’s education agenda during his first term focused primarily on K-12 reforms and loan programs for college students. Early education emerged as a top priority for his second term Tuesday, though, as he promised that his administration will work with states to ensure all students have access to high-quality preschool. Currently, fewer than 30 percent of four-year-olds are enrolled in such programs, Obama said.
“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” he said. “So let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”
Prior to the speech, the First Five Years Fund, an organization focused on expanding learning opportunities from birth to age five, analyzed State of the Union speeches going back to President Lyndon B. Johnson. It found that no president in the past 50 years had mentioned universal preschool in this platform.
Kris Perry, the Fund’s executive director, said she was hopeful that given the tools at Obama’s disposal, like Head Start and an existing federal grant competition program for early learning, the president would be able to make progress on the goal. “He really is in a unique position with his cabinet to move that kind of thing forward,” she said.
For older students, Obama spoke of the need to redesign high schools to improve the link between education and workforce needs. He noted that German students graduate from high school with the equivalent of a technical degree from a U.S. community college.
As such, Obama promised the Department of Education will create incentives for schools that form new partnerships with colleges or employers, or develop science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes geared toward high-tech jobs.
Obama also asked Congress to change the Higher Education Act to restrict which schools are eligible to receive financial aid, directly acknowledging that his oft-cited student loan reforms don’t combat the problem of staggering college costs. He proposed that things like “affordability and value” be included in determining which schools are eligible to receive federal loans and grants as payments for tuition.
“Taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education,” Obama said. “Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.”
In his first term, Obama proposed gainful employment rules that would limit the ability of for-profit schools to receive financial aid based on the debt incurred by their students and their incomes after graduating.
In the Republican response, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also addressed the costs of higher education. He, however, made a subtle plug for for-profit universities, which are often largely online and cater to older students and career-switchers.
“We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that nontraditional students rely on, like online programs,” Rubio said.
But there may be one area of agreement: education about college costs. Rubio called for the federal government to give students “more information on the costs and benefits of the loans they’re taking out.”
Wednesday, the Department of Education will release a “College Scorecard” that rates colleges based on “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck,” Obama said.
Preschool advocates were enthusiastic about Obama’s promises. “We are thrilled,” said Perry in a statement after the speech.
“Those of us who have dedicated our lives to providing early learning services to at-risk children agree wholeheartedly with the president’s view that all children can benefit from access to early education,” said a statement by Yasmina Vinci, director of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit group. “As the plan for expanding access to early education develops, it is essential we get it right, especially in times of tight budgets.”
Depending on the outcome of fiscal negotiations with Republicans this year, however, Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income children, may face budget cuts and be forced to remove thousands of children from the rolls.
“Ensuring high-quality pre-K is available for all low- and moderate-income children, as well as more middle-income children, will require a tremendous increase in capacity for overburdened early education providers — and a far greater investment of resources from both the federal government and states,” wrote Clare McCann, of the New American Foundation, which advocates for increased quality early education. “The president was silent last night on whether more funds would be available, or from where.”