President Obama proposed a vast expansion to early childhood education programs during his State of the Union address in February, saying he wanted to work “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” The budget plan he released today follows up on that promise, allocating $75 billion in new funding over the next decade to partner with states and help expand access to low- and middle-income children who aren’t currently enrolled in preschool programs.
Obama’s plan would partner with states to help “provide all low- and moderate-income four-year-old children with high-quality preschool, while also incentivizing States to expand these programs to reach additional children from middle-class families and establish full-day kindergarten policies.” Overall, the budget spends $90 billion on the Preschool for All initiative and an expansion in home visiting for children. The programs are financed through a $0.94 increase in cigarette and tobacco taxes.
The U.S. ranks among the worst of industrialized countries when it comes to funding early childhood education, and it especially fails to help low-income children. “Nationwide 60 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool, compared to less than 50 percent of children below the poverty line,” according to the Center for American Progress’ Juliana Herman and Melissa Lazarin, meaning there are more than a million low-income children not receiving any preschool education across the country. And while many states have expanded programs, they still aren’t reaching enough children, as this map from Herman, Lazarin, and Sasha Post shows:
Addressing those gaps, as Obama’s preschool expansion seeks to do, will have benefits for both children and the nation’s economy. At-risk children who receive early childhood education are less likely to drop out of school, become teen parents, and commit violent crimes; they are more likely to attend college. A study of Chicago’s universal program found that it generates $11 in economic benefits for each dollar originally spent; studies of other programs have generated $7 in long-term savings for each dollar spent. And investing in children early is proven to increase social and economic mobility and human capital while reducing economic costs in the future.
States have led the effort to expand preschool programs, and they would continue to do so under Obama’s proposal. But, as Herman and Lazarin explain, federal funding “could help jumpstart preschool programs in states without adequate preschools and could also help states with programs reach the lowest-income children. This would free up state dollars to expand access for higher-income children and improve program quality.”
An earlier version of this post said that the White House budget included $77 billion in spending on expanded preschool and home visiting, $66 billion of which went to the Preschool for All initiative. The White House has allocated $75 billion for the Preschool For All initiative, but it expects to spend roughly $66 billion of that over the next decade. It also allocates $15 billion for the expanded home visiting program and another $1.4 billion for expansions to Early Head Start.