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By Raju Chebium
Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2015 includes a big-ticket expense: $75 billion over the next 10 years to help states provide free pre-kindergarten education to millions of low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds.

If Congress approves, the White House estimates California would get $334 million for the 2015 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, to cover nearly 41,000 children. California would be asked to chip in $33.4 million, according to the White House.

That is, if California opts to participate in the voluntary program and Congress endorses Obama's proposal as written.

Under the plan, states would design their own pre-K systems to expand existing services or provide them for the first time. Uncle Sam would provide money to help states offer pre-K for free but only if the programs meet federal standards and are proven to work.

The proposal comes as Gov. Jerry Brown and the California State Legislature remain at odds over a pre-K proposal introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Steinberg's bill would make it mandatory for state schools to offer "transitional kindergarten" for all 4-year-old children. Balking at the cost -- $1 billion or more per year -- Brown excluded the program in the budget request he submitted recently to the legislature. Pre-K is expected to become a major point of contention between the legislature and Brown this year.

Unlike Steinberg's plan, Obama's "universal" pre-K proposal wouldn't be truly universal.

It would cover only 4-year-old children in families that earn up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level -- $47,700 a year for family of four in the 48 contiguous states, $58,880 in Alaska and $54,180 in Hawaii.

Obama made his pre-K pitch last year, but Congress largely ignored it. Lawmakers did provide $250 million for a more modest proposal -- pre-K grants to state and local governments.

After Obama made a second pre-K push in this year's State of the Union speech, the White House revived the proposal in its 2015 budget request to Congress, which the administration unveiled Tuesday.

To pay the hefty price tag and avoid adding to the national debt, the White House proposed raising the federal tobacco tax.

The 2015 budget request also seeks $750 million to continue the pre-K grants. Obama also wants Congress to increase funding for Head Start, a federally run pre-K program for low-income children.

Republicans have repeatedly tried to gut Head Start, calling it bloated and wasteful.

Many Democrats like Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., applauded Obama for wanting to work with the states to boost pre-K services nationwide.

"The president's budget provides a lot of momentum for quality pre-school. This is a substantial move in the right direction," said Polis, former chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education and the founder of two charter schools. "Early education is the most important investment we can make in children."

The White House proposal is based on legislation introduced by retiring California Rep. George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education & Workforce Committee, and retiring Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Miller's bill has a smattering of GOP support and Harkin's measure has none -- proof that the Democratic pre-K push faces a steep climb on Capitol Hill.

Forty states, including California, pay for some level of pre-K education, though the quality and funding levels vary widely, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming offer no state support of any kind, he said.

Many states that want to ratchet up their programs don't have the money to do so, a situation the White House's proposal would fix, Barnett said.

Supporters point to studies that show children enrolled in pre-K programs are better prepared for school work and are less likely to drop out or turn to crime.

But skeptics like Russ Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar and a former Education Department official, say the studies are methodologically flawed and the links between pre-K and success in later life are tenuous.

Congressional Republicans have picked up on those themes. The GOP is pushing Congress to overhaul a host of anti-poverty programs favored by Democrats, including early childhood education. The Republican effort is being led by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012.

Many governors told the White House they want the pre-K program to be voluntary instead of a federal mandate, said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group. Head Start, which is designed and run by the federal government, covers only about 8 percent of eligible children largely due to funding shortages, Perry said.

There's no guarantee Congress will approve Obama's pre-K plan this year or in the coming years, she acknowledged. But by including pre-K funding in the budget, the White House has made it a priority for two years in a row and generated much-needed exposure, Perry said.

"Momentum . . . is really important," she said. "If the president says this is a priority it gets everybody's attention."

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On the Web:

http://nieer.org/publications/state-preschool-2012-state-profiles, link to the National Institute of Early Education Research's latest survey of state pre-K programs.

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Contact Raju Chebium at rchebium@gannett.com; Twitter: @rchebium

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