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President calls for 'race to the top' for nation's youngest children

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Calling for a “race to the top” for the nation’s youngest children, President Barack Obama announced in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that he will pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists to “help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

It was exactly the kind of thing early childhood education advocates wanted to hear.

“I hope that years from now we will be able to look to this day, and to 2014, as an historic moment when as a country and as a state we made early learning a top priority,” said Deborah Kong, Executive Director of Early Edge California, a group that advocates for universal preschool. “As the President said, preparing tomorrow’s workforce means guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education - and that starts in the earliest years.” 

RELATED: President Obama's full State of the Union address

Kong watched the State of the Union with her 2 year-old son, Robby.

The President began his 6th State of the Union with education, talking about a teacher who spent “extra time with a student who needed it.” About halfway through the 65 minute long address, he came back to education.

He talked about college access and praised new Common Core standards adopted by more than 40 states and his education secretary’s Race to the Top initiative. Then he turned to early education.

“Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education,” Obama said. “Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old. As a parent as well as a President, I repeat that request tonight.”

Early childhood advocates celebrated the President’s comments. Kris Perry, Executive Director of the national non-profit First Five Years Fund, immediately released a statement.

“Tonight, we couldn’t be more thrilled that the president chose to reinforce early childhood education as one of the most important economic priorities for our nation,” Perry's statement read.

Alex Morales, President and CEO of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, said he was glad the president shone the spotlight on the need for early childhood education again this year. He couldn’t help but point out that California is “ahead of the game in trying to list up the opportunity for access to quality early education for 4 years.”

The President first announced his plans for expanding education and services for low-income children aged zero-to-five in last year’s speech. He made the case that investing in the early years would help put at-risk children on a more stable path into the future. The estimated cost was $75 billion.

Since then, the president has set aside money in his budget proposal for universal preschool and proposed paying for it out of an increase to tobacco taxes.

In November, bi-partisan legislation – the Strong Start for America's Children Act - was introduced to Congress. A ten-year initiative, it includes much of what the White House has talked about: free preschool for all 4-year-olds who live at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, money to help improve the quality of care in the early years through partnerships between Early Head Start programs and local childcare providers, and an expansion of the home nurse visitation program for pregnant women and mothers with infants.

A week ago, Obama signed a bill that authorized $1 billion to restore funding above and beyond what Head Start and Early Head Start lost due to sequestration.

In the past year, 30 states have increased spending on early childhood education programs - including California.

In the lead up to Tuesday's speech, early education advocates expressed hopes that the President would not just talk about 4 year-olds and preschool.

“For children in lower socio-economic settings, the gap in language ability begins to emerge before a child’s first birthday and widens by age 3,” said Mathew Melmed, Executive Director of national non-profit organization, Zero to Three.

Morales, of the Children’s Bureau of Southern California, said the President’s policy proposals for Early Head Start and expanding nurse home visitation programs clearly show he sees the need.

“He understands that you have to start earlier than 4-years-old to truly be effective,” Morales said.  “But it would have been wonderful to see him list it up more tonight.” 

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