President Obama visited a schoolhouse in this suburb of Philadelphia on Tuesday to announce stricter financing standards for the government’s Head Start program, which offers preschool training for children from low-income families.
Declaring that investments in early education are critical to the future competitiveness of the United States, Mr. Obama said that the government would, for the first time, require Head Start programs to meet certain standards to qualify for renewal of federal grants.
“If a program isn’t giving children the support they need to be ready for school,” the president told teachers and administrators, squeezed into a small auditorium on folding chairs, “then other organizations will be able to compete for the grant. We will take money from programs that don’t work and put it into programs that do.”
Like many of the stops on Mr. Obama’s itinerary over the last several weeks, this four-hour visit had three ingredients: a politically crucial swing state (Pennsylvania), a sympathetic crowd (educators), and camera-friendly backdrop (3- to 5-year-old children).
Before his speech, Mr. Obama dropped in on a classroom, where he watched several groups of children playing with wood blocks, Legos, puzzles, and toy cars and trucks. Later, he told the crowd that the children “choked me up” because they were “so huggable,” adding that his daughters were “still huggable,” though now 5-foot-9 and 5 feet, respectively.
For the president, who has crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to promote a $447 billion jobs plan that is largely economic stimulus, the visit on Tuesday had a different cast: a pledge to be more discriminating in how the government spends money.
But Mr. Obama renewed his criticism of Republicans in Congress, saying they had voted in favor of cutting the financing of Head Start and the Pell Grant program and had blocked a $35 billion piece of the jobs bill aimed at preventing layoffs of teachers.
“The Republicans in Congress have been trying to gut our investments in education,” Mr. Obama said. He described this initiative as part of a series of unilateral measures that the White House is taking because it does not want to wait for Congress to act.
In fact, many Republicans favor tightening standards for Head Start, and the reforms of the program announced by Mr. Obama on Tuesday date back to the Bush administration. White House officials said the Yeadon Regional Head Start Center, which serves 260 children from Delaware County, was an example of a high-performing center.
Mr. Obama’s criticism came during a week in which the Senate, after blocking several pieces of jobs legislation, seems likely to approve the first elements of the jobs package: tax credits to encourage companies to hire returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Obviously we look forward to passage of this very important provision of the American Jobs Act, hope it does pass, and the president will sign it into law,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, said to reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One.
But the president was not softening his partisan tone, noting that his job-creation ideas could be paid for if Republicans were willing to allow millionaires pay somewhat more in taxes.
“There is no substitute for Congress doing its job,” he said to noisy applause. “If Congress continues to stand only for dysfunction and delay, then I’m going to move ahead without them.”
(Report by the NYT)