Obama’s Proposed Education Initiative: Universal Preschool


Photo courtesy of Navy Hale Keiki School

As President Obama moves into a second term, he has begun rolling out a number of new plans and initiatives. Although many expected the President to immediately focus on our nation’s floundering economy and unemployment woes, he has instead turned his attention to other areas, including education. Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stated many times that “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation”. Unfortunately, this administration has been criticized by advocacy groups such as The Education Trust and Bellwether Education Partners for not doing enough to help close the achievement gap for low- and middle-income students and minority students.

To address these concerns, Duncan and the Department of Health and Human Services are devising a plan to offer universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds from low-and middle-income families — approximately 1.85 million children. The plan is still under review by the White House, but sources said that Linda Smith, an HHS official, recently discussed the proposal at a meeting of early childhood advocates (details courtesy of Huffington Post). While we already have the federally funded Head Start program for preschool-aged children, that program was designed to emphasize health, nutrition and emotional development. The new rollout would focus on merging early childhood/preschool education with the K-12 education system, developing academic/readiness skills in young children to help prepare them for kindergarten.

Photo courtesy of Bloomsberries

In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to be an early childhood educator in the state of Iowa, and have been for several years. Known for leading the way in education, Iowa has had a Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program (SVPP) since 2007. Per the Iowa Department of Education, “the purpose of Iowa's Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children is to provide an opportunity for all young children in the State of Iowa to enter school ready to learn by expanding voluntary access to quality preschool curricula for all four-year-old children”. Our state is already doing what President Obama wants to do on a national scale–our students attend preschool in an elementary school building along with students in grades K-2, and are taught by qualified teachers who are certified in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education.

Contrary to popular belief, today’s preschool is not all play-dough and finger paint (although those activities are a part of what we do, because they are beneficial for kids). The preschool programs of today–and the ones President Obama wishes to put into place in the near future–are taught by certified teachers with rigorous program requirements and challenging curriculum guidelines for students. The Iowa Department of Education has its teachers using the Teaching Strategies GOLD assessment system with four-year-olds across the state. This program includes 38 research-based objectives for development and learning in the following areas: Social-Emotional, Physical, Language, Cognitive, Mathematics, Literacy, Science/Technology, Social Studies, and The Arts. There is also an English-Language component for English language learners. The 38 objectives are further broken down into dimensions–for example, under the Mathematics objective of counting, there are dimensions for counting items using 1-1 correspondence, matching a counted quantity to a written numeral, etc.–which means teachers are evaluating every single student on over one hundred educational outcomes. This attention to detail means four-year-olds are provided the opportunity to develop the skills they need to be ready for kindergarten. Student progress is reported to the Department of Education three times per year.

Photo courtesy of Bonner Library

Considering some states have already implemented universal preschool programs, reaping positive results, the idea of taking the program nationwide seems, to many, an obvious solution to helping close the education gap. So, what’s not to like? For many, the price tag. The program being pitched by Duncan and the Obama administration is projected to cost as much as $10 billion to implement in full. As with many initiatives, this one may come down to a question of funding. This has been the case with the program in Iowa, where the Preschool program was expected to cost the state $80 million back in 2011. At that time there was heated debate between Republican and Democratic legislators as to whether the price was worth paying. Republicans questioned the wisdom of spending tens of millions on Preschool when there was a shortfall in the budget for state troopers and a waiting list for mental health services. Despite a lengthy period of uncertainty (during which time my fellow preschool teachers and I were told our jobs were at risk), the legislators ultimately decided to continue the program.

Of course, this argument resonates at the federal level. Every interest group believes that its constituents deserve the programming they advocate, whether mental health issues, veteran’s issues, military/security, energy, or education. Everyone believes their agenda merits funding and support. However, there is only so much money to go around, and as we have seen with the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff debacles, how to best spend the money is always a loaded question, with few easy answers.

Photo courtesy of "familymrw"

Whether the Obama administration’s early childhood education initiative will ever come to fruition remains to be seen. While most would agree that giving all children access to preschool education is a good thing, not all agree that it is the best use of federal monies. Some school districts do not currently provide full-day kindergarten, and would argue that needs to be funded before we address kindergarten preparation. Though the outcome remains unclear, you can expect education to become a hot topic in the months to come.