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Biden Expected To Unveil Ambitious (And Expensive) Education Proposals

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In his joint address to Congress, President Biden is expected to unveil details of what he's calling his American Families Plan. The nearly $2 trillion proposal covers a handful of bold provisions, including universal preschool, free community college and billions of dollars to make childcare more affordable. To help us understand the aspects of the plan that pertain to students and families, I'm joined by NPR's education correspondent, Cory Turner.

Welcome back.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: We're going to start with really young kids, 0 to 5. What's in the proposal for them?

TURNER: Yeah. There are two really big ideas here. For the youngest children, there's a $225 billion investment in making child care free or at least more affordable for low- and middle-income families. And then the other big idea is a pitch for universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. Now, that would cost another $200 billion and would involve some state spending down the road, which could make it a non-starter in some places, but it's also obviously really early.

CORNISH: And you've been reporting on the whole idea of expanding preschool access for a really long time. What are kind of advocates saying about this?

TURNER: Yeah, I've been covering this for many years now. And, you know, I've been talking to some of the same sources for many years. And the folks I called today are all surprised by the large scale of this package. And they're also genuinely hopeful that it passes because the research on preschools suggests the benefits of high-quality preschool stick with kids for life. You know, they're more likely to graduate high school and go to college. They earn more money. They have better health outcomes. And those gains are especially strong for children in low-income and marginalized communities.

The catch here, though, is that it has to be high-quality, Audie. Otherwise, the benefits tend to fade away by third or fourth grade. And we have seen that in many state-run preschool programs. One expert I've spoken with many times, his name is Steve Barnett. He's at Rutgers. He uses this great metaphor. He says building preschool is like building a rocket. It has to be strong or you're not going to get where you want to go. You know, if your rocket cannot achieve escape velocity, there's no benefit. You know, and preschool is the same.

CORNISH: Can we define high-quality preschool? And is there anything in the president's proposal that's going to apply?

TURNER: Yeah. I think there is some language in the president's proposal that is putting experts at ease, and that should also give you some sense of what quality means. So guaranteeing preschool teachers a $15 an hour minimum wage because preschool teachers generally don't earn a lot of money, so it is a career with a lot of turnover. The proposal also includes making sure teachers have access to coaching and professional development so they can develop high-quality teaching skills. There's also in there - language in there about keeping student-to-teacher ratios low and making sure there's a developmentally appropriate curriculum. And that's no guarantee of quality, but it's all promising.

CORNISH: And what's in the proposal for students at the other end of the learning curve, say college?

TURNER: Yeah, there's a lot. Biden is calling for two years of free community college for all Americans. And like preschool, this would require some level of buy-in and eventually cost-sharing by states. He's also calling for a big increase in the Pell Grant. That's money low-income students can use to pay for college wherever they want to go. And keep in mind, this is all on top of funding for child care and K12 schools that Congress passed last month in the American Rescue Plan. It is a lot of money. And, you know, many Republicans have already said this is irresponsibly expensive. But it is clear that Biden and most Democrats see it differently. And to use that rocket analogy one more time, Audie, this is their moonshot on behalf of children and families.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Cory Turner.

Thank you.

TURNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.