POLITICS
04/10/2013 07:35 am ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Obama Pre-K Expansion Battle Pits Kids Against Cigarettes

President Barack Obama's 2014 budget pits education activists against the tobacco industry by proposing to help fund a new early childhood education program with a tax hike on tobacco.

The education advocates took up that fight early Wednesday. The Center for American Progress, a left-wing think tank with close ties to the administration, released an analysis showing the expansion is badly needed. The analysis by Juliana Herman, Sasha Post, and Melissa Lazarin found that while many states are expanding access to state-funded preschool -- such as Mississippi, which recently established its first program -- many of these programs won't be available to any 3-year-olds. And for 4-year-olds, the wait lists are long.

"This investment could help jumpstart preschool programs in states without adequate preschools and could also help states with programs reach the lowest-income children," the authors wrote. "This would free up state dollars to expand access for higher-income children and improve program quality."

The analysis found that 3.4 million children ages 3 and 4, or 40 percent, are not enrolled in a pre-K program. For poor families, only 54 percent of kids in that age group are enrolled in pre-K. Thirty-six percent of kids in families below the poverty line are not enrolled in any pre-K program. The Center for American Progress also found that 11 states have no state-funded pre-K programs.

The Obama administration's proposal aims to expand preschool to include every 4-year-old whose family makes less than 200 percent of the poverty line. The Huffington Post first reported on this plan in January, and President Barack Obama promoted it in his State of the Union address. At the time, the administration said it planned to incentivize an expansion for middle-class families, as well as update the federal programs that serve younger kids.

Currently, only 28 percent of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds are enrolled in federally or state funded pre-K, according to the analysis.

The Center for American Progress looked at this spread across states, and found that Vermont, Florida, Oklahoma and West Virginia have the highest number of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds enrolled in state-funded preschool. But even in Vermont, the top state, according to the analysis, that is not enough. Fewer than half of children that age go to preschool.

Eleven states offer no state-funded preschool: Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Connecticut ranks 25th. In Nevada, only 41 percent of eligible students attend preschool.

The Center for American Progress also looked at preschool quality across states, weighting the National Institute for Early Education Research's benchmarks with state requirements that teachers hold four-year college degrees and be early education specialists. Alabama was found to meet all 10 quality benchmarks, but has relatively low capacity.

But the administration has a big fight ahead on the issue. Lobbyists for tobacco companies have already said they will protest the tax increase that would fund the expansion. Without that revenue source, it would be hard for the administration to find extra money for a new program amid deficit reduction and austerity.

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