Most states currently offer some public preschool, with both Republicans and Democrats often backing the efforts, but the standards and spending vary. Mr. Biden is seeking to provide prekindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds as part of his $1.8 trillion families plan, which also includes investments in child care, paid leave and community college.
Under his proposal, states would receive federal funding to help create programs or expand their current offerings, and they would need to put up some state funds and meet some standards in return.
The White House says an expansion will improve educational outcomes, while enabling parents of young children to participate fully in the workforce. But while many Republican leaders support public prekindergarten, some have expressed skepticism about what role the federal government should play in funding it and what strings will come with the money.
In Alabama, which has expanded its preschool program, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement that the governor doesn’t support Mr. Biden’s universal prekindergarten proposal, adding that “a top-down approach would simply not be beneficial to us.” She didn’t respond to queries about whether there were circumstances under which the state would accept the funding.
Mr. Biden’s plan for American families forms the second chunk of his proposed $4 trillion for infrastructure and caregiving, which he proposed funding with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
The White House reached a deal in June with a bipartisan group of senators on a $1 trillion infrastructure plan. That deal must now win approval in the narrowly divided Congress. Democrats are simultaneously working on a second package focused on child care, education and other issues that they hope to pass on a party-line vote, using a special process in the Senate to get around likely Republican opposition.
Mr. Biden’s initial proposal had few details. The White House said the prekindergarten program would be a state-federal partnership, with states expected to match 10% of the federal funds in the early years and 50% by year 10 and with a goal of spending roughly $10,000 per child initially. Participation would be voluntary and low-income children would get priority in the early years, with an expectation of 70% of 3- and 4-year-olds in the program after a decade.
In exchange for the federal funding, states would be expected to ensure the programs are high quality, though that process has not yet been established, a White House official said. The official said the White House was confident most states would participate.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said the president’s plan would help the state expand its prekindergarten program, currently geared toward low-income families. She pledged to work with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature with the goal of participation.
“This (is an) issue that families and employers alike are clamoring for additional support on, and so I do suspect that we would be able to find common ground,” she said. “And I can tell you I would be motivated to lead those efforts.”
Some Republicans in Washington expressed concerns.
“It sounds to me like they want to hijack the state and local governments entirely and operate everything out of Washington, D.C. I would be very skeptical of that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).
Sen. Patty Murray (D., Wash.), a former preschool teacher who has sponsored similar legislation as Mr. Biden’s proposal, said a universal prekindergarten program was essential for the U.S. to stay competitive.
“This is an issue that our country needs to deal with if we want to be competitive in a global marketplace, but even more so if we want to be responsive to the needs of families today, we have to have this kind of support within our country,” Ms. Murray said, pointing to studies that show that public prekindergarten provides long-term benefits to students and families.
A recent study on a universal preschool program in Boston found an increase in graduation rates and college attendance and a decrease in disciplinary issues. A program in Washington, D.C., led to an increase in women’s labor-force participation. But research into a Tennessee state program raised questions about the long-term boost for students. Experts noted that programs vary widely based on the cost and quality controls.
“It’s an open question whether pre-K will yield positive or negative outcomes,” said Max Eden, research fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Sarah Rittling, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a bipartisan group that advocates for funding for early childhood care and education, said that prekindergarten has proven popular across the country and that “states, and particularly red states, have led the way.”
Currently, 44 states and the District of Columbia offer public preschool programs that serve more than 1.6 million children, according to a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University that looked at the 2019-2020 school year. Only some offer full-day programs that are universal or nearly universal, which usually encompasses programs that aren’t means-tested. Six states—Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Wyoming—had no state-funded prekindergarten programs.
Overall spending on preschool, including state, local and federal, was about $10.4 billion in the 2019-2020 school year. Most states with public preschool programs serve more than a quarter of their 4-year-olds, but only two states serve more than a quarter of their 3-year-olds.
A 2013 effort by former President Barack Obama to expand preschool offerings nationally didn’t advance.
Vance Aloupis, a Republican state representative in Florida who worked on recent preschool legislation in the state, said that he is happy early childhood education is getting attention. But he said any federal investment should give state leaders flexibility.
“I don’t think it would be wise to have a one-size-fits-all conversation,” he said. “There has to be significant flexibility provided to the states.”
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