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Can Obama Sell Universal Preschool to the GOP?

In a speech to promote his State of the Union education plan, President Obama framed it in a way to appeal to Republicans: It saves money. But the question is not whether it's a good idea so much as whether it can pass the Republican-controlled House.

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In a speech to promote his plan for universal pre-kindergarten Thursday, President Obama tellingly highlighted the education policies in two red states: Georgia and Oklahoma. The policy would guarantee preschool for 4-year-olds whose families earn 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less, and Obama framed it in a way to appeal to Republicans: It saves money. But as with all of Obama's proposals from the State of the Union that weren't executive orders, the question is not whether it's a good idea so much as whether it can pass the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Every dollar spent on early childhood education, Obama said, "saves $7 later on… if you're looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it, right here." And he said pre-school was the best place to start to prevent the achievement gap that poor kids face. "The achievement gap starts off very young," Obama said. "Kids aren't stupid — they know they're behind at a certain point, and then they start pulling back, and they start acting like their disinterested in school because they're frustrated… and then you lose them."

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, there is already some resistance to Obama's pre-K push. Republicans say Head Start, a pre-school program for low-income kids, wastes money and is ineffective, The Wall Street Journal's Stephanie Banchero reports. Minnesota Rep. John Kline, who chairs the House education committee, told the Journal, "before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives." Head Start costs $7.6 billion, he pointed out. The Heritage Foundation's Lindsey Burke said she's not "optimistic that any federal expansion of preschool will look any different from this failed program." (Burke wrote in 2009 that Oklahoma was the only state to see a decrease in fourth-grade reading levels from 1992 to 2007, and that they've declined since the state started universal pre-K.)

But The Washington Post's Suzy Khimm explains it's not clear whether Oklahoma's model is the best to take nationwide. Since the state implemented a universal program in 1998, 74 percent of 4-year-old Oklahomans are enrolled in pre-K, and a "wealth of research has shown the effort has improved these students’ academic, cognitive and emotional abilities, which researchers attribute to a strongly supported program with higher standards." And supporters say attacking the program over the drop in fourth-grade reading levels doesn't take into account that the population of non-English speakers grew significantly since the 1990s. And they say it takes time for the program to be perfected:

“For the first cohort, who participated in pre-K in 2000-01, we did not see persistent effects through grade 3,” [Georgetown University researcher Bill] Gormley notes. “But for the second cohort, who participated in pre-K in 2005-06, after the program had a few years to mature (and K-3 teachers had a chance to ratchet up their classroom pedagogy), we do see persistent effects through grade 3, for math.”

Obama's proposal has some support. National Institute for Early Education Research executive director Steve Barnett backed up Obama's $1-investment-$7-return claim, telling the Journal that pre-school helps poor kids the most, but offers a non-trivial benefit to kids who aren't poor, too. Nobel laureate and early childhood education expert James Heckman gave The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews a "Holy smokes!" of an approval for the plan. But can Obama sell it to Republicans? Khimm offers this telling detail from the pre-K program's history in Oklahoma:

Oklahoma’s universal pre-K initiative is particularly striking coming from a deeply red state with a limited budget. The expanded pre-K access was slipped into a bill without fanfare in 1998 by Democratic state legislator Joe Eddins.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.