President Barack Obama visited Decatur, Ga., today to tout the state’s pre-kindergarten program and propose expanding national early childhood education to cover all 4-year-olds.
The president toured a preschool just outside Atlanta and met with students and teachers. As he left, he said: “If you're looking for a good bang for your education buck, this is it right here.”
But the president might not have been so bullish on Georgia education if he’d stopped by some of the state’s high schools. Georgia has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation, with only 67.4 percent of students graduating in 2011.
In the state’s largest urban area, where students should benefit most from the educational boost early childhood education is supposed to provide, only about half of students graduate high school. Last year, Atlanta Public Schools reported a 52 percent graduation rate for 2011, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Supporters of early childhood education programs like Head Start say children do get a boost from targeted learning in preschool classes. They acknowledge the advantage wears off but blame elementary, middle and high schools for the failure.
“Study after study shows that the earlier a child starts learning, the better he or she does down the road," President Obama said this afternoon. “But here's the thing: We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance.”
The president first mentioned his plan to expand preschool programs during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Two days later, the White House provided more details: the government will pay for public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less than the federal poverty level. That’s a lower threshold than the current Head Start program, which only serves children of families that fall below 130 percent of the poverty line.
Obama also wants to let communities and child care providers compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth.
But none of the proposals includes a price tag. Head Start already costs $8 billion each year, and even government analysts say its ineffective.
In a report released late last year, the Department of Health and Human Services said students in the Head Start program weren’t any farther along than students in the same demographic who didn’t attend the program. Critics cite the study as proof the costly investment has been a waste of money.
And under the president’s proposal, states will be left to pick up most of the tab. Georgia, funds its program with proceeds from the state’s lottery. But legislators have been forced to cut class time and increase class sizes in recent years to make up for funding shortfalls. The program serves about 84,000 students annually and has a waiting list.
Critics of the president’s expansion plans say states struggling to dig out from the economic downturn and pay for existing commitments will have a hard time swallowing the preschool expansion.
"There's reason for huge skepticism," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. "Most states are still in a ditch financially, and it's going to be a couple years before they're out of it. … I don't know where the states are going to come up with the money for this."