Obama said that less than one-third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool and blamed the high cost of these programs for essentially shutting off access to poorer infants, toddlers and preschoolers. He said studies repeatedly show that children who are educated early in life are more likely to finish their educations, avoid the criminal justice system, hold good jobs and have stable families. All those factors are good for the U.S. and its economy overall, Obama said.
"We've got kids in this country who are every bit as talented as Malia and Sasha but they're starting out the race a step behind," Obama said, referencing his teenage daughters. He said the investments announced at a daylong White House summit on early education will help level the field.
Nationwide, 28 per cent of America's 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded preschool program last year.
"We're not close to where we need to be," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a morning panel discussion on how to pump more investment into early learning.
The panelists, including a local sheriff from Ohio, agreed that spending more money on early education can have significant lifetime effects such as reducing crime and teen pregnancy and increasing future earnings for those who went to preschool.
To create or expand high-quality preschool programs, the Education Department awarded almost $250 million in grants to 18 states. They are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia. In all, 36 states had applied for the grant money.
Another $500 million from the Health and Human Services Department is being sent to more than 40 states to expand Early Head Start and child care programs for youngsters from birth to 3 years old.
The White House said about 63,000 children would benefit from the federal dollars, which officials said already have been appropriated by Congress.
On top of the federal money is more than $330 million from dozens of corporations, foundations and individuals. That money is part of a new campaign called Invest in US.
The effort being led by the First Five Years Fund will challenge the private and public sectors to spend more on early childhood education. Among those supporting the campaign are The Walt Disney Co. with $55 million in learning apps and books, the LEGO Foundation with $5 million and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation with $25 million.
Vice-President Joe Biden closed the summit by asking the audience to imagine if each of the country's 40 million 4-year-olds had a chance to attend preschool. "This is tangible ... Every child is capable of succeeding. They just need a chance," he said.
Obama pushed for an expansion of early education opportunities in his State of the Union address in 2013, and again in 2014 after his call got little traction in Congress. At the summit, he called on the new Republican-controlled Congress that will be seated next year to "work with me to make pre-K available for all of our kids."
During the summit, the First Five Years Fund also previewed a series of 60-second public service announcements that focus on different aspects of early childhood education, from home-based child care providers to preschool teachers.
Produced to highlight the importance of educating children in their first five years, actors Jennifer Garner and Julianne Moore and singers John Legend and Shakira each narrate a spot, ending with the tagline "When we invest in them, we invest in us."
Associated Press writer Darlene Superville contributed to this report.