DECATUR, Ga. (AP) - Raising hopes among parents who want preschool for all, President Barack Obama on Thursday rolled out a plan to vastly expand government-funded early childhood while keeping the price tag a secret.
Republicans, wary of high costs and questionable outcomes, made clear they have no intention of signing a blank check.
Setting up yet another clash with Republicans over spending and the proper scope of government, Obama in his State of the Union address proposed working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every American child. Two days later, he played blocks and gave fist-bumps to kids in a preschool classroom at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, casting the plan as part of a moral imperative to give every child a shot at success.
"The size of your paycheck shouldn't determine your child's future," Obama told about 600 teachers and parents at the Decatur Community Recreation Center, singling out Georgia as a model for making universal preschool a priority. "Let's fix this. Let's make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind."
The White House offered the first details about Obama's plan Thursday, describing it as a "continuum of high-quality early learning for a child, beginning at birth and continuing to age 5." The government would fund public preschool for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level - a more generous threshold than the current Head Start program, which generally serves kids from families below 130 percent of the poverty line. All 50 states and the federal government would chip in.
Obama also proposed letting communities and child care providers compete for grants to serve children 3 and younger, starting from birth. And once a state has established its program for 4-year-olds, it can use funds from the program to offer full-day kindergarten, the plan says.
Conspicuously absent from Obama's plan were any details about the cost, a key concern among Republicans. Obama's aides have insisted the new programs would not add to the nation's nearly $16.5 trillion debt, but they won't say what else will be cut to offset the cost, offering only vague allusions to cutting entitlement spending and closing loopholes.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, two of Obama's top policy aides declined five times to explain how much the program would cost.
"Details on that will be released when the president releases his budget in the coming weeks," said Roberto Rodriguez, the White House's top education adviser. When asked again about the costs, officials went silent before a press aide joked: "Great, we'll take the next one."
The price tag for expanding preschool to more than 4 million 4-year-olds is potentially staggering. For instance, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank with close ties to the Obama administration, proposed a $10,000-a-child match to what states spend. That effort could cost tax payers almost $100 billion over 10 years.