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Obama Preschool Proposal Focuses on States, Not the Feds, Providing Pre-K

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The Obama Administration continues to spotlight the President's preschool proposal, stressing that the plan is for the federal government to help support state-funded programs, not create a new federal program. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at an elementary school in Montgomery County, MD that includes state-funded preschool, applies standards that stretch from pre-kindergarten up through the 12th grade, and that has been the subject of a Harvard case study on helping low-income children make strong gains in school.

"America can't win the race for the future by cheating children at the starting line," Duncan said, noting that less than 30 percent of children in the United States are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs.

In the C-SPAN video above, Duncan and Sebelius speak at a Maryland elementary school about the Administration's preschool proposal and the impact of sequestration.

Duncan was accompanied by Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services. The two leaders have appeared together since 2009 in stressing the importance of linking programs to couple a focus on human development with a focus on education in the early years. She spoke about expanding home-visiting programs and launching a new partnership between federally subsidized child care and Head Start programs. "All of these efforts recognize we have a moral and economic imperative to ensure that no child has fallen behind by the first day of kindergarten," Sebelius said.

Duncan's comments appeared designed to correct the impression of some commentators who criticize the preschool plan as federal overreach. He stressed that the proposal is for working with states - many of whom are led by Republican governors and legislatures - to expand preschool programs that states are running.

(In The Atlantic last week, analyst Laura Bornfreund and I commended this approach because it allows for a more seamless PreK-12 model of education, a necessary step for ensuring that gains made in preschool are sustained throughout children's years in school.)

"Our theory of action in expanding high-quality preschool is going to be the same as it was in our first term," Duncan said. The federal role is to "support and partner with states to incentivize innovation and help identify what works to strengthen educational opportunities." He said the federal government sets a high bar but that he wants to "leave it to states and local leaders on the best way for achieving that high bar."

"I wish some of our friends on the Hill today could have visited this school today," Duncan said, "and talked with governors who are expanding high-quality preschool programs in their states."

Duncan also talked about the across-the-board sequestration cuts as "dumb government" and a "man-made mess" that could be fixed by politicians who could come together and find common ground.

For more on what sequestration means - and more importantly, why it's important to focus on this month's budget negotiations for 2013 - see this recent post on the New America Foundation's Early Ed Watch blog. Early Ed Watch also has written a detailed analysis of the President's preschool plan based on what we have seen of the proposal so far.