Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits Streamwood High School in Streamwood,… (Rick West/AP/Daily Herald )
Arne Duncan woke at 5:30 a.m. in his Arlington County home, was driven to the airport and folded his 6-foot-5 frame into an aisle seat in coach. The education secretary buckled his seat belt and tilted his head back for a short flight to Atlanta, another stop in his uphill effort to sell the Obama administration’s next big idea: pre-kindergarten for every 4-year-old in the country.
The pitch on this day was to Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican inclined toward the notion but dead-set against raising taxes to pay for it.
Duncan strode into an Atlanta preschool classroom, shook hands with Deal and joined the governor’s wife, Sandra, in reading “Roar!” to some wiggly 4-year-olds. Duncan called Deal an “amazing leader” and praised Georgia’s state-funded preschool program. He slipped in a reference to Deal’s mother, a first-grade teacher, and even said he wanted Sandra to join him on the road.
In the second term of the Obama administration, Arne Duncan is traveling to more locations than most other Cabinet members, save the secretary of state. With his plaid suit bag and his dark briefcase, the peripatetic Duncan is promoting an idea he says will improve millions of lives and strengthen the country.
It’s a different challenge for Duncan, who exploited luck and circumstance in the first term to carry out much of President Obama’s education agenda without help from Capitol Hill.
But now, Duncan needs Congress. In particular, he needs Republican lawmakers to approve $75 billion in new federal tobacco taxes to fund his early childhood education plan.
To cultivate that support, Duncan, a one-time professional basketball player, is playing an “outside-in” strategy. He is reaching out to Republican governors, hoping they will help him persuade GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill to embrace the “Preschool for All” initiative. But it’s a tall order for many Republican governors who are cool to the notion of new taxes.
In recent weeks, Duncan has traveled to Michigan, Georgia and Virginia and plans to visit Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio and Minnesota. Those states already use state money to fund some preschool, and Duncan figures that offers a path in.
“Governors get this because they have to deliver, they can’t just talk,” Duncan said in an interview on his way to the Atlanta school. “Can you get Washington to be more functional? That’s the challenge.”
If Duncan can succeed, he would deliver Obama a legacy-building victory that they believe could narrow the academic gap between poor and privileged children — a disparity that has budged little since it was first identified in 1966.
“The average disadvantaged child comes to kindergarten a year to a year and a half behind other kids,” Duncan said. “And we spend all this time and money trying to catch them up. And we wonder why we have an achievement gap.”
With the time remaining in the Obama presidency, “this is the most important thing we could do,” Duncan added.
Hostility to tax proposal
In many ways, it’s hard for politicians to argue against the idea of helping small, wide-eyed children who leap with excitement at the alphabet song. But the dividends that come from preschool investment — higher rates of high school graduation and employment, lower rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy — don’t materialize until years down the line, way past the next election. And the idea of funding preschool by nearly doubling the federal tobacco tax — from $1.01 to $1.95 per pack of cigarettes — is anathema to many Republicans.
In the House, there is open hostility to the idea. “There is no chance of a tobacco tax to pass,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Even Deal, who would like to see more federal money flowing to the states for preschool, blanched at the idea of paying for it with higher taxes. “That’s a non-starter for me,” Deal said after the event he was headlining with Duncan.
Under the plan, the federal government would offer grants to states that choose to enroll 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. The plan calls for the federal share to gradually diminish from 91 percent initially to 25 percent after 10 years. In addition to preschool, Obama is seeking $15 billion for education programs for babies and toddlers.
Advocates for early childhood education are organizing a national campaign led by the First Five Years Fund, which supports early childhood education programs for low-income children, and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank associated with the Obama administration. They have hired Jim Messina, the manager of Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, to help devise a strategy and have created a “war room” in an office building on Capitol Hill.