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The Complexities of Obama's Universal Pre-Kindergarten Plan

Getty Images/AFP/Jure Makovec

The most important proposal in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address may be one that gets the least attention and, quite possibly, has the least chance of becoming law in the near future: his proposal to create a universal pre-kindergarten program. 

The idea is pretty simple. American children are guaranteed an education when they turn five and enter kindergarten. Before that, they may or may not have access to what we now call "pre-school," which typically depends on the resources (and sometimes the resourcefulness) of their parents. 

More affluent families tend to get their kids into decent day cares and nursery schools; less affluent families do not. But poor kids are the ones who need good care the most. Research suggests the first few years and particularly the first two years are critical for the development of intellectual and behavioral skills. Providing low-income kids with access to decent, affordable preschool can help make up for what they're not getting already. It can also help families—not just poor families, but middle-income families—pay for the cost of child care, which can put a real crimp in household budgets.

That's the theory, at least. How does it translate into an actual, real-life policy proposal? We don't know just yet: We'll have to wait for Obama to give the full details. But the plan will probably resemble a recent proposal from the Center for American Progress.

That proposal actually has several components, including financial assistance to help parents pay for infant and toddler care as well as additional investment in the Early Head Start program. But the biggest component is a proposal to partner with states, matching their investments dollar-for-dollar, with a goal of subsidizing preschool based on income. For children in families with household income below twice the poverty line, or about $46,000 for a family of four, preschool would be free, just like public education. (In case you were wondering, by the way, participation in the program would be strictly voluntary. Nobody is mandating that anybody go to preschool.) 

The American Progress proposal wouldn't be cheap: It would cost about $10.5 billion a year, according to the paper. That's real money. Then again, plenty of researchers think investments in early childhood pay off—and pay off handsomely—over time. The best-known advocate for this view is James Heckman, the Nobel-winning economist from the University of Chicago. Among those who have made variations on the same argument are Timothy Bartik, of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed. The common theme in their work is that the right kinds of investments not only reduce poverty; they also improve productivity.

The administration knows all about this research: Obama cited a piece of it during the speech, drawing particular attention to studies of Oklahoma's efforts: "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on—by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime," he said. "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own."

The research has its detractors. Among the important questions they ask: Is it possible to replicate the results of model interventions, like the Perry Preschool, on a national scale? (The results of Head Start have been decidedly mixed.) The questions deserve a better answer than I can give right now.

The political prospects aren't as grim as you might think, even in this fiscal environment. The idea of more investment in early childhood has attracted bipartisan support recently, particularly at the state level. "In the past month, a number of GOP governors ... have spoken favorably about the need for greater investments in early childhood education, including Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal," says Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund. "The president's policy proposal is something on which Democrats and Republicans clearly agree and should have a broad and diverse coalition of support behind it." 

None of which means a bill will arrive on Obama's desk next week. This kind of project typically takes years of groundwork. But first somebody has to start the conversation, and that's what Obama did tonight.