Making high-quality preschool education available to every child in America is a goal of the Barack Obama administration.

And on Monday, his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, will be in Santa Fe to talk about the president’s Preschool for All program.

The president is proposing to spend $75 billion over 10 years to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds in the U.S.

The program is one of the topics on Duncan’s back-to-school bus tour — “Strong Start, Bright Future” — which focuses on the Southwest this year and kicks off at the United Way of Santa Fe County Early Learning Center near Aspen Community Magnet School.

“We want to stop playing ‘catch up’ and give more kids educational opportunities. That’s part of what we plan to talk about out there,” Duncan said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The program would be funded from tax increases on tobacco products. Initially, the federal government would contribute more to the cost of the program, but over time individual states would take over more of the funding.

New Mexico could receive about $24.5 million in its first year of Preschool for All if it chooses to participate. This funding, combined with a state match of $2.4 million, would serve nearly 3,000 students from low and moderate-income families in the first year.

The state must meet benchmarks such as state-level standards for early learning programs, hiring qualified teachers who are paid comparably to the state’s K-12 educators, small class sizes and effective evaluation of programs.

Duncan said the program is not a federal mandate but about “states investing in themselves. Whatever we can do to be a good partner, we want to do.”

New Mexico launched its own voluntary pre-K program in 2005. Early reports indicated that children participating in the program were gaining important skills, but currently only about 10,000 4-year-olds participate statewide.

Last spring, Gov. Susana Martinez pledged $13.7 million for pre-K programs in school districts around the state. The state’s Children, Youth and Families Department invests about another $6.7 million.

Duncan said lack of affordable access to early childhood educational programming for all students accounts for “New Mexico being in the bottom 10 or 15 percent of states on virtually every metric.”

The state’s graduation rates, test scores and other measures of academic performance are poor compared to other states. “There is clearly a long way to go in New Mexico,” he said.

Although some experts, including Grover “Russ” Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution Brown Center on Education Policy, believe the benefits of pre-K are inconclusive, Duncan believes such investments pay off down the line in increased academic achievement, socialization skills and higher graduation rates.

Duncan, 49, has served as secretary of education since January 2009. Previously he was CEO of Chicago Public Schools.

Among his educational initiatives is Race to the Top funds, which includes the chance for school districts to earn waivers from various No Child Left Behind mandates imposed by the Bush administration.

Other topics to be discussed on Duncan’s bus tour include high school graduation rates and making college affordable.

“The stakes are so high today,” he said. “When I was growing up on the south side of Chicago, if my friends dropped out of high school, they could still get a job in the stockyards and steel mills and maybe buy a house and earn a middle-class wage. Today, if you drop out of high school, you are basically condemned to poverty and social and economic failure. The world has changed faster than the quality of education and I worry desperately about the opportunity gap for young people.”

Larry Behrens, spokesman for New Mexico’s Public Education Department, said via email Wednesday that New Mexico still has to look at the specifics of the Preschool For All.

“However, we have been clear that we support voluntary pre-K programs — especially for low-income children — and feel that we can meet demands for this early childhood education without raising taxes on New Mexicans,” he said.

Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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