In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed sweeping reform to preschool education in the United States. His “Preschool for All” initiative calls for dramatic increases in the number of 4 year olds in public preschool programs and in the quality of these programs nationwide. The proposed program would be funded by a $75 billion federal investment over 10 years, to be roughly matched by states, with federal dollars allocated to states based on the share of their 4 year olds from low- and moderate-income families.
Local school districts and other providers would be responsible for implementation, but in order to receive federal funding, states would have to adopt certain quality benchmarks, including early learning standards, teacher qualifications, and a plan for assessment.
The new preschools would be free for children from low- and moderate-income families and accessible to children from higher-income families at some (unspecified) cost. A large body of prior research has shown that there is a high rate of return to early childhood education among disadvantaged children. Prior studies of the long-run impacts of preschool programs that have targeted children from low-income families—for example the Perry Preschool Project and the federally funded Head Start program—find that preschool has not only private returns in terms of increased lifetime earnings, but also public returns through reductions in crime and use of public assistance. Because of these externalities to preschool enrollment, economists would tend to agree that there is a role for public policy to expand preschool access. The Obama plan builds on existing public preschool programs operated by state governments, which have greatly expanded over the past 30 years. Today, several states,
Low- to moderate-income is defined as income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.
The Obama plan also includes expansions of Head Start for low-income 3 year olds and Early Head Start for younger children, incentives for states to adopt full-day kindergarten classes, and extension of voluntary home visiting programs by nurses and social workers.