Obama traveled to Decatur, Ga., to push the proposal in Tuesday's State of the Union address to make high-quality preschool available for every child in the United States.
"I remember how tough it can be to find good childcare. I remember how expensive it can be, too. The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn't determine your child's future," Obama said at the Decatur Community Recreation Center, which was festooned with a sign reading, "Preschool for all."
"So let's fix this. Let's make sure none of our kids start out the race of life already a step behind. Let's make it a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality early education. Let's give our kids that chance."
Obama said children who are denied preschool start out behind when their formal education begins.
"They know they're behind at a certain point, and then they start pulling back, and they act like they're disinterested in school because they're frustrated that they're not doing as well as they should, and then you may lose them," Obama said.
"And that's why ... I proposed working with states like Georgia to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every child."
The White House is proposing a federal-state funding "partnership" to "provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool."
Before delivering his speech, which officials said was attended by 604 people, Obama stopped at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center where he played with a group of 4- and 5-year-olds.
Obama's proposal also would expand preschool programs for middle-class children and give incentives to full-day kindergarten policies, the White House said.
In the 2010-11 school year, the latest year with data, 28 percent of 4-year-olds in the United States went to state-financed preschool programs, a report by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research indicated.
State financing for pre-K programs that school year decreased by $60 million, despite the use of $127 million in federal economic stimulus money, said the report, which can be found online at tinyurl.com/nieer.
Obama said in his State of the Union speech every $1 spent on preschool education ultimately saves about $7 on spending for remedial education and crime, while raising future tax revenues because children who attend high-quality preschool programs usually end up earning higher incomes than those who don't.
Critics argue Washington already has tried a national preschool program with Head Start, which serves some 1.1 million low-income children and their families with education, health, nutrition and parent involvement services.
Critics point out individual program studies have shown benefits, but an October 2012 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 84 local Head Start programs found few lasting benefits by third grade. The report can be found at tinyurl.com/oprereport.
Obama's preschool proposal is part of a three-prong plan that also includes expanding Early Head Start and child care for infants and toddlers and extending volunteer home-visiting support for "vulnerable children and families," the White House said.
"The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based their share of 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, and funds would be distributed to local school districts and other partner providers to implement the program," a White House statement said.
"The proposal would include an incentive for states to broaden participation in their public preschool program for additional middle-class families, which states may choose to reach and serve in a variety of ways, such as a sliding-scale arrangement," it said.
Qualifying preschool programs would need to have "well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff, small class sizes and low adult-to-child ratios, a rigorous curriculum, comprehensive health and related services and effective evaluation and review of programs," the White House said.