Obama Expected To Propose Expanding Preschool Programs

President Obama is expected to propose an expansion of preschool programs in his State of the Union Address. Most states have bought into the idea and restored funding for the programs. What's less clear is where the long-term funding is going to come from, and whether the quality of these programs are worth the investment.

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In tonight's State of the Union speech, President Obama is expected to call for a year of action. One of those proposed actions is likely to be an expansion of preschool programs. That's an issue the president raised in last year's State of the Union address. One question the, and one question still, is whether children really benefit.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: It's hard to find anybody who thinks preschool is not a good idea. Certainly President Obama believes it can help solve lots of problems.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.

SANCHEZ: That's from the president's 2013 State of the Union address, when he proposed raising taxes on cigarettes to make preschool available to every child in the nation.

OBAMA: Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works.

NEAL MCCLUSKEY: So if you take what the president said at face value, you would think this was the ultimate policy intervention that would solve everything.

SANCHEZ: Neal McCluskey doesn't buy it. He's with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. Forty states and the District of Columbia currently run preschool programs for 1.1 million primarily low-income 4-year-olds. But McCluskey says the quality of both state and federally funded preschool programs is sorely lacking. Take Head Start for example.

MCCLUSKEY: The research on that has shown there are almost no long lasting benefits.

SANCHEZ: McCluskey says kids in Head Start and most state-run programs fall behind in reading and math by first or second grade. High quality preschool is a good idea says McCluskey. Expanding programs that don't work is a waste of money. It's an argument that Deborah Phillips hears more often than she'd like.

DEBORAH PHILLIPS: It completely baffles me.

SANCHEZ: Phillips is an early childhood education expert at Georgetown University. She says the notion that states are throwing money away because kids' gains in reading, writing and math fade soon after they start school, is like giving up on a long distance runner after he's run only a mile or two. Long term, says Phillips, children do benefit.

PHILLIPS: Every early intervention program, for which we have long term outcomes, finds that despite fade-out, you get very strong long-term benefits, like increased school completion and college attendance, increased employment and earnings.

SANCHEZ: Phillips' groundbreaking study of Tulsa, Oklahoma's preschool program also showed that for every dollar the state spent, it saved $3. Last year, 30 states increased funding for preschool by nearly $364 million, a 7 percent jump over the previous year.

MICHAEL GRIFFITH: States are seeing increases in sales, income tax revenue, and other revenues. And they've been taking that extra money and putting it into early learning programs.

SANCHEZ: Michael Griffith is a finance consultant with the non-partisan Education Commission of the States. He says all eyes are on New York where Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio - both Democrats - are squabbling over a key question.

GRIFFITH: Should we have a tax increase or should we not? Then, even within that, we see a lot of debates in states about, OK, if we are going to do a tax increase, who is going to pay for it? Will it be the wealthy? Will it be the sales tax? Will it be the income tax? So I would say what's happening in New York is sort of a smaller scale of what we're seeing across the whole country.

SANCHEZ: So, a full-blown national debate over preschool actually has less to do with what President Obama will say tonight, and more about what state lawmakers will decide in the coming months.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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