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Obama seeks to expand preschool

President wants free early education for lower-income families

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama visited a preschool in Georgia on Thursday to unveil details about his new plan to ensure that all 4-year-olds – including those whose families struggle to make ends meet – receive the same opportunities for a high-quality early education.

Funded by federal and state tax dollars, the president’s plan would be a dramatic expansion of education for 4-year-olds, by making a year of optional preschool free for low- and moderate-income children.

“Hope is found in what works,” Obama said at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, part of Georgia’s widely available preschool program, funded by the state lottery. “This works. We know it works. If you’re looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it, right here.”

States would have to meet quality standards before they could apply for federal funds. The program would encourage states to assist middle-class families as well, possibly on a sliding scale. It also would expand early learning for infants and toddlers.

The goal, Obama said, would be to take advantage of the crucial learning period from birth to age 5 and close the achievement gap between poor children and their better-off peers.

Before he spoke to a room of adults, the president sat in a classroom with 16 4- and 5-year-olds busying themselves with blocks and iPads. Their self-portraits hung above them, fastened with clothespins.

At one table, the president sat in a child-size chair and played with a magnifying glass with some of the children.

“This is sort of like ‘I Spy,’ ” he said. “I remember ‘I Spy.’ ”

The president’s proposal would offer public preschool to families who earn at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four – the equivalent of $46,100 annually.

Only 28 percent of 4-year-olds nationwide were enrolled in state-funded preschools in 2010-’11, according to the latest preschool survey from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

While preschool is the focus, the plan also includes an expanded Early Head Start for infants and toddlers, and an expansion of voluntary home visits by social workers and others for parenting education and support.