Obama to unveil universal preschool plan

In this 2011 file photo, President Obama helps children place a block while touring a classroom in the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center in Yeadon, Pa.
MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty Images

President Obama continues his post-State of the Union road show today in Decatur, Ga., where he will unveil details of his plan to expand preschool programs, which he mentioned during his address Tuesday night.

"I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America," Mr. Obama said Tuesday.

"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. So let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance," he added.

The president is set to visit the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, to make a case for the benefits of universal pre-K and lay out more details of his plan.

Among the proposals Mr. Obama will announce, according to the White House, include:

  • Providing preschool to all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds to be funded by a new federal-state partnership
  • Investing more in the Head Start program
  • Implementing higher standards for schools to meet in order to receive federal funding
  • Encouraging states to expand full-day kindergarten

Meantime, the president's ambitious plan could be in jeopardy if lawmakers don't avert the so-called sequester - billions in automatic budget cuts set to kick in on March 1. With the cuts looming, the administration has increased its pressure on lawmakers, and Mr. Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday made clear he was not looking for compromise as he began his second term.

The president isn't expected to get into the details about how much his new proposal will cost but his aides stressed that the new programs would not add to the nation's nearly $16.5 trillion debt.

"The last budget had over $1.5 trillion of mandatory and revenue savings, things like reductions in entitlements, closing loopholes," Jason Furman, a deputy director at the National Economic Council, told reporters Wednesday.

Furman said the new initiatives would be smaller and promised Mr. Obama would outline the details when he sends his 2014 budget proposal to Congress next month.

Ahead of that, the White House and Congress are weighing whether to let the deep automatic spending cuts to take hold on March 1. If that happens, some 10,000 teachers could be out of work and 70,000 students could be kicked out of Head Start programs, the White House has warned.

The cuts would also force an additional 14,000 Head Start workers to be laid off and would mean 1.2 million students from low-income families would have their schools' funding cut. Washington also would stop paying its share of 7,200 special needs educators' salaries.

The federal government doesn't directly pay the salaries of those workers but sends money to states based on the number of students in specific categories, such as those with learning disabilities or from at-risk communities. The states generally dole out those dollars to the individual districts based on the schools' share of those students.

The automatic, across-the-board budget cuts were designed to kick in only if lawmakers failed to reach a broad agreement to reduce the nation's debt.

"Should these cuts occur, they would be harmful not only to our agency, but to critical domestic and defense priorities across the government and across the country," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told department employees last week, warning they might be forced to take unpaid leave to deal with the budget crunch.