Universal Pre-K Clears Its First Hurdle
Seven months ago, I wrote about my roundtable discussion with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan advocating for expanding public preschool offerings to low-income families. The plan calls for the federal government to subsidize states by up to 90 percent in their effort to make early-learning programs available to children whose families otherwise couldn’t afford them. President Obama sees it as an investment in their (and our) future, since children learn so much in preschool and attending a high-quality program prepares kids for kindergarten and the greater challenges beyond.
After months of behind-the-scenes negotiation, the idea finally has legislative form. Yesterday, the twin bills, called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, were introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY). Anyone old enough to remember Schoolhouse Rock’s classic “I’m Just a Bill” knows that it’s easy for any proposed legislation to get stuck in committee on Capitol Hill. That is especially true right now: Our divided Congress seems more concerned with adhering to party ideologies than passing laws. Earlier this year, it failed to act on a measure that would require background checks for gun purchases despite the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans supported it.
Similarly, 70 percent of Americans favor increased public funding for universal preschool, including 60 percent of Republicans, according to a Daily Caller poll. The 10-year plan calls for federal grants to assist states in providing access to high-quality, publicly funded pre-K offerings. Its goal is to cover all 4-year-olds in families whose incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($46,000 for a family of four), as well as to improve early-learning opportunities and home visits for underprivileged kids 3 and under, according to the nonpartisan New America Foundation. The major stumbling block is the pricetag. Initially, President Obama hoped to fund the program by means of a cigarette tax. Predictably, big tobacco lobbied vehemently against this idea. Currently, the bills make no mention of where the money will come from. For an initiative that could cost $75 billion during the next decade, that is a major obstacle. Still, Strong Start has been praised by early-education advocates, teachers, and members of both parties. It likely won’t pass without extensive floor fights and compromise. But here’s hoping this bill has the mettle and determination of the cute little Schoolhouse Rock guy so that it, too, can become a law someday.
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