By PHILIP ELLIOTT
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Days before President Barack Obama outlines his agenda for the coming year, a think tank with close ties to the White House is outlining a plan that would provide preschool for all children within five years.
The Center for American Progress proposal, released Thursday, provides a road map for how the Obama administration could move forward with pre-kindergarten programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds. For families with younger children, federal subsidies for child care would increase to an average $7,200 per child and the number of students in Early Head Start programs would double.
"We're trying to ensure all children are ready to learn when they get to school," said Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the think tank and a former top policy official in the Obama administration. "Investing in early learning and pre-K is the best investment that we can make. The return on investment is significant."
Education Department officials, including Secretary Arne Duncan, have signaled that pre-kindergarten programs would be a priority during Obama's second term. The Center for American Progress has been an influential partner for the White House in fleshing out its policies. Think tank officials say they don't know what precisely will be in Obama's State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but seldom does the organization move too far or too quickly ahead of White House priorities.
Under the center's plan, Washington would match states' spending on these preschool programs for 3- or 4-year-olds at an average rate of $10,000 per child -- enough to cover full-day programs. The program would be phased in over five years, starting first with low-income students who, studies show, benefit the most from pre-kindergarten programs.
Children ages 3 and 4 would be eligible to attend preschool for free if they come from a family of four earning $46,100 or less. For families making more than that, the rates would be adjusted based on income.
The price tag for the plan is not small: Over a 10-year period, it would cost $98.4 billion for preschool, $84.2 billion for child care subsidies and $11.5 billion for Early Head Start -- a total of almost $200 billion. Once the program was up and running, it would cost nearly $25 billion a year -- $12.3 billion for preschool, $10.5 billion for child care subsidies and $1.4 billion for Early Head Start.
But given the fierce debate on spending and debt -- especially among Republicans -- that kind of spending would probably meet resistance in Congress even if Obama embraced it as a blueprint.
"This is an area where you have a challenge in the political timeline. Early learning is an investment when you get the returns in 10 or 20 years," Tanden said. "What we do have in the arena of early learning is the hard data that shows the actual return on investment."
For instance, a child who does not have early childhood education is 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become a teenage parent and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
Closer to the kitchen table, the proposals have an economic resonance. The average family with two parents working and with children younger than 5 spends roughly a one-tenth of the income on child care. For families making less, that percentage climbs quickly.
In the think tank's outline, states could partner with public school districts, charter schools, Head Start programs or child care agencies -- a concession that could win over Republicans who want more options for parents.
The plan would double the number of families making $46,100 or less who receive child care subsidies, from 22 percent to 44 percent.
Currently, the average subsidy is about $5,600 annually -- far short the actual cost of caring for these infants and toddlers. The proposal would have federal tax dollars cover 75 percent of the subsidy program and take the annual amount to about $7,200. States would be left to pick up the rest.
That part of the proposal would cost the federal government an estimated $84.2 billion over its first decade.
The proposal also would increase the number of students in Early Head Start programs from 120,000 to 240,000. That piece of the plan would cost $11.5 billion over its first 10 years.