By Larry Copeland and David Jackson, USA TODAY
DECATUR, Ga. -- President Obama on Thursday called for high-quality preschool programs for "every child in America," although he included no details on how to pay for it.
"I propose working with states like Georgia to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America, every child in America," he said after visiting an early childhood learning center in this Atlanta suburb.
"Every dollar we invest in high-quality education can save more than seven dollars later on," the president said. "In states like Georgia that have made it a priority to educate our youngest children, states like Oklahoma, students ... are more likely to graduate from high school, to hold a job, even to form a more stable family.
"This works," he said. "We know it works. If you're looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here."
In a second day of follow-up to his State of the Union speech, the president spoke to an enthusiastic capacity crowd in the gymnasium of the Decatur Recreation Center, east of Atlanta, after touring the nearby College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center. He was joined by some of the state's top Democratic politicians, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, former Georgia senator Max Cleland, U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson and former state Labor commissioner Michael Thurmond.
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Obama had singled out Georgia as a state that has made strides in early childhood education. The state made a commitment to universal pre-K in 1995, with the effort to be funded by state lottery proceeds.
There has been slow progress toward reaching that goal, though, with about 60% of eligible children now enrolled. In recent years, with lottery revenues flat, officials have cut the pre-K program. It was reduced by 20 days in 2011, although Republican Gov. Nathan Deal got legislators to restore 10 of those days last year and seeks to add back the other 10 in his current budget proposal.
The president acknowledged that the kind of top quality preschool programs he's proposing are expensive. But he added: "The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn't determine your child's future. So let's fix this. Let's make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind. Let's make it a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality preschool education."
Obama argued that his proposal, which has few specifics, is critical for the nation's future. "If their generation prospers," he said, "if they've got the skills they need to get a good job, that means businesses want to locate here. It also means, by the way, that they're well-equipped as citizens with the critical thinking skills they need to help guide our democracy."
As the president spoke, a large, multicolored "Preschool For All" banner was hanging on the wall to his right. He opened his 16-minute remarks with: "I can't imagine a more romantic way to spend Valentine's Day. Michelle says hello. She made me promise to get back in time for our date tonight. That's important. I've already got her gift. Got the flowers."
The White House plan includes a federal-state partnership to provide preschool funding for any 4-year-old whose family income is 200% or less of the federal poverty level.
Obama is also proposing an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program, allowing states, communities, and child care providers to compete for grants to serve children 3 years and younger.
Some Republicans called Obama's plans too expensive and ill-conceived in an era of high debt.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., said Georgia is "home to an 8.6% unemployment rate. Because of President Obama's failed policies, hundreds of thousands of hard-working and enterprising Georgians can't find a job and countless more have stopped looking altogether."
This is Obama's first visit to Georgia since he was re-elected. His last trip came on a campaign fund-raising swing in June; the president also visited troops and their families at Fort Stewart in April, and was in Atlanta last March for a fundraiser hosted by the actor and director Tyler Perry.
Obama lost Georgia to Mitt Romney by 53.3% to 45.5% in the November election, but Mike Berlon, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said that showing came "with very little help from the national party." He expects Georgia to be much more competitive in 2016.
Last week, Berlon told WXIA-TV of Atlanta that the president's appearance is part of a plan to help the Democratic Party turn Peach State from red to blue or purple over the next two election cycles. "We know that in 2014 and into 2016, Georgia's going to be in play," he said. "And this is just the beginning, I think, of a lot of visits to Georgia to help turn the state blue."
A week ago, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus visited Atlanta to meet with prominent black Georgia Republicans on what the party called "an African American engagement and listening session" on how to attract more black voters to the GOP.
The Georgia visit comes a day after Obama traveled to Asheville, N.C., to discuss his State of the Union manufacturing plan and again call for an increase in the minimum wage.
On Friday, Obama will visit Hyde Park Academy in Chicago to amplify proposals to help the middle class and combat gun violence.