Will Smokers Be Forced to Pay for Obama's Big Preschool Plan?


President Barack Obama has never shied away from his passion for free pre-K education for all children.

He talked about it extensively in his State of the Union address in February, and now he reportedly has figured out a way to finance his education plan as he readies his 2014 budget plan that will land on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

According to The New York Times, Obama will propose paying for his pre-K plan by raising federal taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products.



This could be good news for kids, but bad news for smokers.

“NEA members commend President Obama for his commitment to bringing quality early childhood education to all children,” Donna M. Harris-Aikens, director of Education Policy and Practice for the National Education Association, told TakePart in a statement. “There are far too many kids without access to a full range of crucial programs like Head Start, pre-K, and full-day kindergarten that lead to long-term student success. Some states are already focused on quality early education for all kids and the Administration's renewed and critically needed support will broaden that access so all children are prepared to learn.”

But Obama is already facing harsh opposition from big tobacco companies.

“We oppose another federal tax increase on tobacco products,” David Sutton, spokesperson for the tobacco lobbying organization The Altria Group, told The Huffington Post on Friday. “While the specific amount of the proposed increase has not been released, it is important to remember that the largest federal tobacco tax increase in U.S. history was enacted less than four years ago. We think it is unfair to single out adult tobacco consumers with another federal tobacco tax increase to pay for a broad, new government spending program.”

Some analysts said that increasing the tax by 50 cents to $1.51 could raise more than $42 billion in ten years. But other analysts have said Obama’s pre-K plan would cost $98 billion over the next decade.

Then again, others say higher taxes mean less smoking and in turn, less revenue.

But the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids states on its website that “while reducing smoking, higher tobacco taxes are also a reliable source of revenue to fund programs such as the early childhood education initiative. Every time the federal government and the states have substantially increased tobacco tax rates, they have enjoyed substantial increases in revenue.”

Pre-K funding has long been a problem for states and the federal government. When the recession hit, state funding for preschool, “declined by $60 million adjusted for inflation, even as $127 million in federal pre-K funding streamed into states from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” according to the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute that invests in new thinkers and new ideas based in Washington.

The New America Foundation states on its blog that it wants to closely examine Obama’s pre-K tobacco tax plan: “We have a lot of questions about the plan, like how many children is it expected to cover? How expensive will it be and for how much will states be on the hook? How will the White House ensure pre-K offerings are high-quality? We’ll be looking to the budget request for these and other details on the plan.”

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), “Only 12 states could be verified as providing enough per-child funding to meet all 10 benchmarks for quality standards.” The organization goes so far to call this “a crisis in quality.”

Obama has used cigarette taxes previously to help children.

In 2009, the president signed the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 into law. That raised the federal tax rate for cigarettes starting on April 1, 2009 from $0.39 per pack to $1.01 per pack. The Children’s Health Insurance Program helps impoverished children with a variety of aid, including dental benefits and mental health services.

Ironically, naysayers have said those most punished by tobacco taxes are the poor because they have tendency to smoke more.

But while the critics are arming themselves for a fight, many, especially anti-smoking groups, are already calling Obama’s proposal a win-win for the country since it will save lives and educate children.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids called Obama’s proposal “a health win that will reduce tobacco use and save lives, a financial win that will raise revenue to fund an important initiative and reduce tobacco-related health care costs, and a political win that is popular with voters.”

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• Jon Stewart Discovers Preschoolers Hold Key to Solving D.C. Gridlock

• What’s Next for Early Childhood Education in America?

Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com