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Beyond the sequester: The merits – and flaws – of Obama's preschool plan

Sequester cuts will stymie President Obama’s early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. And there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

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President Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning center in Decatur, Georgia, Feb. 14. Op-ed contributor Russ Whitehurst writes: 'Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children who would otherwise start – and stay – behind a fighting chance.'

Jason Reed/Reuters/file

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There’s been much hype about President Obama’s new plan to expand preschool in the US. But while the president’s selling of his preschool plan makes it sound like a new entitlement – taxpayer-funded preschool for all – the White House fact sheet on the policy makes it clear that the plan isn’t “universal” at all. Rather, the administration is proposing to work with states to fund expansion of taxpayer-funded pre-K for lower income families.

In fact, the Obama administration’s preschool plan is consistent with the federal role in education and human services since the Lyndon Johnson administration: targeted assistance for services to the economically disadvantaged. And this is a good thing.

Research shows that children from poor families start school substantially behind children from more advantaged backgrounds in vocabulary, knowledge of the world, social skills, and pre-academic content such as letter recognition, all of which are strongly predictive of later school success. These differences arise because well-educated parents typically spend many thousands more hours than their poorly educated, low-income counterparts in interactions with their young children that teach things that are important for school readiness.

Good preschool programs can make up some of these gaps in experience and learning and thereby give children who would otherwise start – and stay – behind a fighting chance. In a 21st century global economy in which knowledge and skills are the passports to prosperity, it is important to our nation as a whole that all our children have a fair shot at a good education.

Of course, Mr. Obama’s initiative has come face to face with the reality of federal budget constraints, as the sequester – or across-the-board spending cuts – begins to take effect. Those cuts will stymie Obama’s early childhood education agenda for the foreseeable future, but expanding preschool for low-income families is still an idea whose time has come. Based on what the White House has released so far and some judicious reading between the lines, there are several aspects of the president's preschool plan to applaud.

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