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Obama hits Georgia to sell new childhood initiatives

DECATUR, Ga. -- Continuing his post-State of the Union tour, President Barack Obama today made an economic case for the early childhood initiatives he unveiled in his primetime speech, telling a crowd in this Atlanta suburb that investments in such programs are “a good bang for your educational buck.”

The president’s education proposals include national universal pre-school enrollment and a new collaboration between the federal Early Head Start program, which is focused on the development of very young low-income children, and childcare facilities.

And in his speech at a recreation center here, Obama singled out the nearby College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, which he visited during his stop to the state, as an example of the types of state-federal partnerships that can boost the quality of life for low-income children well after preschool.

“The kids we saw today, that I had a chance to spend time with -- they're some of the lucky ones, because fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.”

Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama runs up the stairs as he arrives for a speech on education, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, at the Decatur Community Recreation Center in Decatur, Ga.

The president said that such early investment in the future of children -- of all economic levels -- leads to a more vibrant economy overall. “That's not just going to make sure that they do well. That will strengthen our economy and our country for all of us,” he said.

He praised Georgia, one of only five states to have an official goal of full preschool enrollment, in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, saying the state “make[s] it a priority to educate our youngest children.”

But Georgia, which made a commitment to universal pre-K in 1995, still only has about 60 percent enrollment, and has had to cut back funding and school days because of budget shortfalls -- the program is funded by lottery revenues which have slowed recently.

Twenty days of the pre-kindergarten year were removed this year due to budget cuts, which resulted in an exodus of qualified teachers. Now, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) is proposing adding back 10 of those days according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Obama gave a nod to the state’s difficulty in funding the program, saying that “even in times of tight budgets,” Georgia and states like it have “worked to make a preschool slot available for nearly every parent who's looking for one for their child.”

In terms of how the federal program would be funded, the Obama administration has not yet given specifics of how much its proposals would cost. The New Republic magazine speculated that the program might resemble one proposed by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, whose preschool program costs $10 billion per year and Early Head Start-child care initiative would cost $10.5 billion per year.

But the program will be revenue-neutral, deputy National Economic Council director Jason Furman maintained yesterday, because it will not cost as much as the administration’s spending cuts implemented last year.

In addition to laying out his vision for America’s education future, President Obama also had a few words of advice for the parents of young children -- raising a few eyebrows as he seemed to suggest one of his daughters might have begun going on dates.

“I do have to warn the parents who are here who still have young kids, they grow up to be, like, 5 [feet] 10 [inches]. And even if they're still nice to you, they -- they basically don't have a lot of time for you during the weekends. They have sleepovers and dates. So all that early investment just leaves them to go away,” he joked as the crowd laughed.