Washington is about to be hit with a massive set of spending cuts that would curtail spending in education, but President Obama nevertheless traveled to Georgia today to make the case that early childhood education is a worthwhile investment.
"We need to make smart choices as a country, by cutting what we don't need but then by investing in the things we do need," Mr. Obama said in Decatur, Ga., after touring the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. "We need to make sure we've got shared responsibility for giving every American the chance to earn the skills and education they need for a competitive global job market."
"The earlier a child begins learning, the better he does down the road," he added. "We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance."
While the White House is calling for these new investments, it's also urging Congress to delay and eventually avert the so-called "sequester," which refers to a series of broad automatic spending cuts set to go into effect next month. The sequester would cut $1.2 trillion in government spending over 10 years.
If it goes into full effect, according to the White House, 14,000 Head Start workers could be laid off and 1.2 million students from low-income families would have their schools' funding cut.
The president needled Congress about the partisanship that has contributed to the repeated legislative hang-ups lawmakers have faced in recent years. "That whole playing well with others, by the way, is a trait we could use in Washington," Mr. Obama quipped. "Maybe we need to bring the teachers up. Every once in a while, have some quiet time. Time out."
As Mr. Obama said during his State of the Union address this week, he is proposing a plan to make preschool universally available with a new federal-state partnership for low- and moderate-income four-year-olds. He's also calling for greater investments in Head Start and encouraging states to expand full-day kindergarten.
The president has said his proposal won't add to the deficit, and he is expected to lay out the financial details next month in his proposed 2014 budget.
Before delivering his remarks, Mr. Obama joined a classroom of 16 children between the ages of four and five at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. The president joined the kids as they played with items like blocks and a magnifying glass. One boy told him, "Welcome, Mr. President," while another child remarked, "I saw you on TV."
Afterwards, Mr. Obama praised the educators at the center, saying, "You've combined kids with different income levels, you've got disabled kids in the same classroom, so we're all learning together. All the kids are being leveled up, and you're not seeing some of that same stratification that you see that leads to these massive achievement gaps."
He noted that if a child starts school a step behind, they'll start "pulling back, and they act like they're disinterested because they're frustrated they're not doing as well as they should."
Mr. Obama said that every dollar invested in high-quality early education will have $7 later on. His administration has also pointed out that such investments have bipartisan support.
"States like Georgia and Oklahoma, which are states run by Republican governors, and routinely vote for Republican presidential candidates, by the way, have made important investments in the programs," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said today. "So there's no reason it should get bogged down in partisan politics."