President’s preschool plan faces opposition

Gov. Nathan Deal shared a stage in May with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan — but he didn’t share Duncan’s enthusiasm for the president’s plan to spend $75 billion over 10 years expanding pre-kindergarten and other early childhood initiatives.

Deal is on board with Duncan’s underlying objective. “We’re trying to find ways every day to continue to improve the opportunities for young children,” the governor told the crowd.

Where he differs with Duncan, he said, is “with regard to the new funding source, since I don’t favor any new taxes.”

President Barack Obama made universal pre-k one of his first second-term initiatives, mentioning it in his State of the Union speech and traveling to Decatur two days later to promote the plan.

Although the Preschool for All initiative has the potential to pull in millions of federal dollars for Georgia’s popular lottery-funded pre-k program — and Obama touted Georgia as a national model — the state’s overwhelmingly Republican elected leadership has not embraced the administration’s approach.

The same goes in Washington, where the pre-k initiative has thus far been stymied by the same Congressional gridlock that has hampered much of the president’s agenda.

Duncan has been Obama’s chief salesman for the plan. In addition to Atlanta’s William M. Boyd Elementary School, the secretary has traveled to Virginia, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky to tout the benefits of universal pre-k.

He also braved hostile territory on Capitol Hill. U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., shot down the proposal before Duncan even began testimony on his department’s budget.

“While we all recognize the value of quality early learning experiences, we must remember a number of programs with similar goals are already out there, including Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and dozens of state preschool programs nationwide,” Kline said. “Reforming and improving existing programs throughout our education system should take precedence over new initiatives.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to enticing Republicans is the proposed tobacco tax hike to pay for the plan. Opposition to any and all tax increases is firmly embedded in GOP orthodoxy.

Altria, the parent company for tobacco maker Philip Morris, has “been sharing our perspective on the tax increase proposal with some members and staff” in Congress, spokesman David Sutton said.

That perspective is not a positive one.

“We think it is patently unfair to single out adult tobacco consumers with another federal tobacco tax increase to pay for a broad, new government spending program claimed to have benefits for everyone,” Sutton said. “Moreover, excise taxes are regressive, disproportionately burdening middle and lower-income consumers — the very same consumers who have already endured five years of a stagnant economy and high unemployment.”

As early as July 2011, Deal, who spent 17 years in Congress, suggested that Georgia should be allowed to shift money from Head Start, the federally run early childhood program for poor children, and give it to pre-k. He brought the idea up again in his May appearance with Duncan.

“We could do a better job of it because, frankly, our program is better,” the governor said.

Duncan promised that the Obama administration was open to exploring every option, though he said that reprogramming existing funds would not make enough difference.

“I’m talking about a massive influx of resources,” he said at the event. “This isn’t about making changes on the margin. I’m not interested in symbolic victories. Our goal is to dramatically expand access.”

Waiting for legislation

There is not even a bill yet that could set in motion the 10-year-plan, though the Obama administration has been working with staff of the Democrat-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to write one.

Jim Messina, Obama’s re-election campaign manager, is heading a campaign by several outside groups and the U.S. Department of Education to push early education.

But Kris Perry, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group First Five Years Fund, said the coalition is not making an urgent push to pass a law this year. Nor, she said, is it wedded to the idea of a new tobacco tax. Instead, the group is trying to get people from both parties committed to the larger idea that improving early education is critical.

“If we can find the bipartisan consensus on that, then let’s talk about how and where will the money come from and by when,” Perry said. “But we want to start with: Is there consensus? Is this a national priority? Are people understanding how critical early learning is for K-12, how important it is for law enforcement, important for national security?”

Perry added that a Senate bill to reauthorize elementary and secondary education programs has “the most we’ve ever seen” in such a bill on early learning. It would particularly encourage low-performing elementary schools to promote pre-k education. The bill emerged from committee in the Senate with an uncertain future ahead of it.

The Preschool for All plan would fund public pre-school for 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty rate.

The federal government would fund a majority of the costs during the first few years before shifting them to the states. The plan calls for nearly doubling the federal tax on cigarettes to $1.95 per pack, something Pat Willis, executive director of the advocacy group Voices for Georgia’s Children, sees as unlikely.

“We feel until (Obama) can propose a more acceptable funding strategy it is hard to anticipate anything happening too soon,” Willis said.

Added details about the plan rolled out from the White House in June, including forecasts that Georgia could receive about $108 million in the first year of its participation in Preschool for All and help 13,315 children from low- and moderate-income families.

The head of Georgia’s pre-k program, Bobby Cagle, is watching and waiting.

“They’re still trying to get traction,” he said of the administration’s plan. “Until we see movement, I’m not going to spend a whole lot of staff time (analyzing the implications for Georgia).”

Georgia has been considered a leader in providing access to pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds. Last year, nearly 83,000 children went through the lottery-funded pre-k program, with about 8,000 others on waiting lists. But with lottery proceeds also going to the popular HOPE scholarship and always in flux, the program’s had some challenges.

In 2011, Deal increased class sizes and shortened the pre-k school year by 20 days, moves he deemed necessary to the longterm viability of both that program and HOPE. He brought the pre-k year back to the traditional 180 days this year, hoping to stop veteran teachers from leaving en masse.

The program fell in a national ranking of pre-k programs this year, because of the larger class sizes.

Whatever happens with the president’s current proposal, some want to make sure that consideration is given to the expertise that states have developed in early childhood education.

“As we have been developing our own advocacy for the federal program, we like to talk about a stronger state and federal partnership that recognizes the states have developed the expertise they didn’t have when Head Start was developed 50 years ago,” Willis said. “I think the state should legitimately be playing more of a lead role.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.