In one of the most sweeping policy proposals in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for access to high-quality preschool programs for “every child in America.”

The impact the new proposal will have on California and other states is far from clear. Obama said he wanted to work with states to implement his preschool plan, but offered few details. Instead, he focused on studies that have shown the benefits provided by strong early childhood programs.

PK_crayons“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” Obama said.

In a fact sheet released to accompany the speech, the White House explained that the president’s plan would be focused on “all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children.” The fact sheet also said the administration would work “to incentivize” states to provide “full day kindergarten” rather than half day kindergarten, which is the norm in many states and districts.

What is not yet known is how many federal dollars will be available for new preschool programs, where those dollars will come from, and what states will need to do to access them. It’s not clear from the president’s speech, for example, if states will have to compete for funding like they do in the administration’s Race To The Top program, the signature education initiative of Obama’s presidency.

“Really, the devil is in the details,” said Camille Maben, executive director of First 5 California, the statewide, voter-initiated commission to improve programs for low-income children ages 0 to 5 years old. “If we have an opportunity to participate that would be great.”

Until more is known about the program, Maben said, it is hard to predict how California might take part.

Six years ago, an effort to implement a universal preschool program in California failed when voters rejected Proposition 82. The initiative would have provided preschool for all 4-year-olds, much as Obama called for on Tuesday.

In a statement released moments after Obama’s address, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the California Department of Education was ready to cooperate.

“We look forward to this new opportunity to partner with the Administration to give more children the opportunity to benefit from high-quality early education programs,” Torlakson said.

Torlakson has pushed for restoring funding cut from early childhood education programs in virtually every statement he’s released this year in reaction to Gov. Jerry Brown’s education funding proposals. Brown’s proposed budget for 2013-14 does not attempt to undo deep funding cuts to early child care and education programs since the beginning of the Great Recession five years ago.

Responding to President Obama’s speech, Long Beach Unified School Superintendent Chris Steinhauser said no matter how funding for the federal program is distributed, he will go after it, should it become available. A longtime champion of universal preschool, Steinhauser has led efforts to provide preschool to most students in his district. He said he was eager to see how the program might benefit his district.

“We will be watching this develop very closely,” he said in an interview.

Rather than have the program dictated by Washington or Sacramento, Steinhauser would like to maintain the autonomy his district has enjoyed thus far.

“We believe in local control,” he said.

Obama called out two states – Oklahoma and Georgia – that he considered exemplars for their investments in near-universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Oklahoma served 74 percent of its 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs in 2011, and another 15 percent in federally funded (and state-supplemented) Head Start programs, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research.

In contrast, California served 19 percent of its 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool programs and another 12 percent in federally funded Head Start programs in the same year. Approximately another third of California 4-year-olds attend private preschools, according to an earlier RAND survey.

Nevertheless, preschool advocate Catherine Atkin of Preschool California said the state should be able to demonstrate that it is ready to move forward with a universal preschool program. She pointed to the state’s Race To The Top: Early Learning Challenge grant and the recent implementation of transitional kindergarten as examples of steps California has taken in the right direction.

“We’re well positioned to take additional dollars and move them in the right way towards early learning and outcomes in school,” said Atkin.

The president also announced a new initiative to help high schools partner with colleges and employers and focus on science, technology, engineering and math programs. He rounded out the education policy portion of his speech with the announcement of a new college scorecard that is meant to measure “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

First 5 California’s Maben said hearing the president talk about early childhood education in such a high-profile speech was a win no matter what the specifics of the new program might be.

“Being mentioned is incredible and really good, most of all for children,” Maben said. “It’s bringing attention to what is a critical component of a child’s life.”

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