In an ambitious and highly anticipated budget plan, President Barack Obama called Wednesday for allocating $75 billion over the next 10 years to expand public preschool by raising the federal tax on tobacco products.
The plan offered the first concrete proposal for funding the “Preschool for All” initiative the president introduced in his State of the Union address in January. If approved, it would be the largest influx of federal funding for preschool since Head Start – which now provides nearly $8 billion for early education programs for children living in poverty – was initiated in 1965.
Still, the president’s proposal faces a tough fight in a fractured Congress focused on trimming a massive federal deficit.
“We do not believe increasing taxes to grow government programs is the best course for our country,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, a member of the House Budget Committee, in a statement. Calvert said he would oppose any proposal to expand government programs or increase taxes, including the tobacco tax the president is proposing to pay for expanded preschool.
Obama called for increasing the tax on tobacco products to $1.95 per pack, up from $1.01. The new tax would fund a grant program that would allow states to expand their public preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families – those making up to about $47,100 a year for a family of four.
Additionally, the budget allocates $750 million in competitive “Preschool Development Grants” to be distributed in 2014 to states that want to expand their preschool offerings.
“We’re really excited to see the president make good on his State of the Union commitment to make early learning a priority,” said Catherine Atkin of Early Edge California, an advocacy and lobbying organization focused on expanded early education programs in the state.
She added, “We know that with one out of eight children in the country living in California, we stand to be big winners.”
If Obama’s proposal is adopted, any new preschool offerings would likely come in the form of an expansion to the state’s current preschool program, which is funded from the money in the state’s general fund earmarked for education. The federally funded Head Start program also offers public preschool in the state. Both programs are targeted for the children from the same low- and moderate-income families who would be eligible for services under Obama’s new proposed program. Collectively, the two programs serve more than 300,000 children. Both programs report long waiting lists.
State preschool and child care programs have been slashed by $1 billion since the beginning of the economic recession, resulting in fewer slots. Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget would keep early education funding in California flat for fiscal year 2013-2014.
Head Start programs are also facing shrinking grants under the federal sequester cuts and expect to serve as many as 6,000 fewer children in California by this time next year. The president’s proposal could signal a change for Head Start as well: As 4-year-olds begin to enroll in classrooms funded by Preschool for All grants, the U.S. Department of Education recommends that Head Start shift its focus to infants and toddlers.
Supporters of the president’s proposal are optimistic about the possibility of passage. Kris Perry, executive director of the national First Five Years Fund, which advocates for increased programming and spending on early childhood programs across the country, said that tobacco taxes have passed in 47 states and stand a good chance at the national level—although they anticipate a tough fight.
“I don’t want to be Pollyanna,” Atkin said. “The tobacco tax and the tobacco lobby in Congress is formidable. We are going to have to be very focused and beat the drum for this proposal.”
Advocates are also aware of a potential catch in relying on tobacco tax revenue. One much touted side benefit of tobacco taxes – that they help lower tobacco consumption – raises the risk of a steadily shrinking funding stream. But Atkin hopes that by the time that happens, the preschool programs would have proven their benefit enough to warrant ongoing funding.
In the meantime, California preschool advocates have already launched a concerted effort to ensure the state is ready to apply for federal funding for expanded preschool programming should money become available. Last week, a coalition of superintendents penned an open letter to Obama supporting his Preschool for All initiative and outlining how they would get their districts ready to partner with the federal government to expand preschool access.
Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, introduced a resolution, to be heard before the Assembly Education Committee on May 1, stating support for the president’s proposal and encouraging the California Department of Education to prepare a plan for expanding California’s state preschool program.
“It was good news to hear that concrete plans are coming forward,” Bonilla said. “It shows (Obama’s) commitment to carrying through on his goals.”