Obama campaigns for universal pre-K

President Obama rallied Thursday for his new proposal to provide universal access to pre-K programs, telling teachers in Decatur, Ga., that "we all pay a price" when students are without quality childhood education.

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"The size of your paycheck shouldn't determine your child's future," Obama said. "So let's fix this. Let's make sure none of our kids start out the race of life a step behind."

Obama's proposal, first outlined in Tuesday's State of the Union address, provides federal matching dollars to states with the goal of providing preschool for every 4-year-old from a moderate- or low-income family. 

Obama is also requesting an expansion of Early Head Start to provide additional childcare and learning programs for toddlers.

The president's trip to Georgia highlights that state's program, implemented in 1995, which seeks to provide universal pre-K for children across the state. 

According to the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, more than 83,000 children are currently enrolled in the program, which is funded through a combination of federal and state dollars and revenue from Georgia's lottery. 

Before speaking, Obama toured a nearby pre-K center, meeting teachers and playing games with the young children.

"Through this interactive learning, they're learning math, writing, how to tell stories," Obama said.

Obama argued that the benefits of pre-K access were profound, leading to higher graduation rates and reduced instances of crime and teenage pregnancy. The National Institutes of Health, looking at a preschool program in Chicago, estimated every dollar spent on early education generated $11 in economic benefits over a child's lifetime.

"Hope is found in what works," Obama said. "This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it. Right here."

Administration officials said Obama was highlighting Georgia because the state was heavily Republican, hoping to argue early childhood education as a bipartisan issue.

"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 Thursday. "So there's no reason it should get bogged down in partisan politics."

Still, the proposal could face steep opposition in Congress. The White House on Thursday refused to detail a cost for the program, saying the president would outline his projections when he submits a budget later this year. In Georgia alone, the pre-K program is budgeted nearly $300 million in the current fiscal year.

Obama, who inserted frequent joking asides into his speech, admitted to the pre-K teachers that "playing well with others is a trait we could use more in Washington."

"Maybe we could bring the teachers up, every once in awhile, have some quiet time," he continued, laughing. "Time out."

Some lawmakers have questioned the effectiveness of state-level programs. In Georgia, for instance, only six out of 10 pre-K eligible students are enrolled, and the high school graduation rate ranks in the bottom quartile. 

The administration has said that pre-K programs would need to follow certain requirements to receive federal funding under the proposal.

Those include requiring teachers to hold college degrees in certain education-related categories, restrictions on class size, and a government-approved curriculum. And, Georgia's attendance rate far exceeds the 28 percent of four-year-olds enrolled in state-financed preschool programs nationwide, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

But Obama's proposal comes at a time where the Education Department is scrambling to keep current programs funded through the possible sequestration cuts set to be implemented at the end of the month.

"We’re trying to do a lot more in terms of early childhood education, not go in the opposite direction,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday, according to The Associated Press. 

“Doing that to our most vulnerable children is education malpractice, economically foolish and morally indefensible.”