ATLANTA -- President Barack Obama's plan to expand preschool for the nation's children faces deep skepticism among Republicans, who fear the creation of another federal entitlement program that they say could add to the nation's deficit and swell the ranks of teachers unions.
In a rally with teachers after visiting a class of 4-year-olds Thursday, Mr. Obama reiterated his State of the Union pledge to make high-quality preschool available to all children, which could cost as much as $10 billion a year, or nearly a tenth of the entire federal education budget.
"Hope is found in what works," Mr. Obama said to raucous applause after joining the children as they played with blocks and a magnifying glass. "This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it."
Despite the outlines of a plan that White House officials said would use federal money in support of state-based preschool programs, conservatives said they were suspicious that it would be a foot in the door toward more big government. They also said there was little evidence that large-scale preschool programs do much good for children in the long run. Advocates, who said quality preschool education makes a significant difference in children's lives, were bracing for a fight in Congress.
"It just doesn't make any sense," said Andrew J. Coulson, director of the center for educational freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian group. "Why would you want to very expensively expand the programs like this if the evidence of effectiveness is not really sound?" He said that the president's preschool plan appeared to require highly paid preschool teachers, and that Mr. Obama wanted to expand "a very strong, very consistently supportive constituency."
Capitol Hill Republicans said they were awaiting more details before making a final judgment, but senior aides in the GOP-controlled House expressed concerns about the scope of the program, its quality controls and the criteria for participation.
"Countless early-childhood programs already exist at the state and federal levels," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said in a statement. "The president needs to explain how this program will be different," added Mr. Kline, chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. "These are important questions that won't be answered at a campaign-style rally."
Mr. Obama gave few details of his plan to dramatically expand access to what he called "high-quality early education," although he cited preschools in Georgia as an example of the kind of long-term benefits for children taught at an early age by a qualified teacher. "Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," he said. "We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."
White House officials declined to discuss how much Mr. Obama's proposals would cost. They said those details would be released with the president's budget in coming weeks. Cecilia Munoz, the president's domestic policy adviser, insisted that the proposal would not add to the deficit. "What we are talking about here is a partnership with the states," she said. "To suggest that this is an entitlement program is just completely inaccurate."
W. Steven Barnett, director of Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research in New Jersey, estimated the president's plan could cost between $3 billion and $20 billion a year. He called it "the biggest proposed change in American education since Brown v. the Board of Education," the court case that integrated schools.
First Published February 15, 2013 5:00 AM