Obama doles out fist bumps, high-fives as he unveils preschool plan in Georgia classroom

 President Barack Obama reacts as he draws a card during a learning game during a visit to a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Evan Vucci/AP

President Barack Obama reacts as he draws a card during a game at a visit to a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., on Thurs., Feb. 14, 2013.

WASHINGTON — President Obama gave one little Georgia boy a fist bump Thursday as he unveiled the most ambitious proposal for early childhood learning since President Lyndon Johnson’s Head Start. It’s unclear if Republicans will now give it a thumbs down.

Obama traveled to a Decatur, Ga., pre-K classroom to boost a central element of his plan for economic revival: a federal-state partnership to offer high-quality pre-K to all four-year-olds.

“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool,” he later told an audience.

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Evan Vucci/AP

The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. Within it, he proposed a federal-state partnership to offer high-quality pre-K to all four-year-olds.

“And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives. And we all pay a price for that.”

Obama made his proposal, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday, amid a growing body of research that shows a link between early learning and reductions in juvenile delinquency and dropout rates.

The evidence also shows that children exposed to early education are more likely to find better jobs as adults.

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Obama’s plan would also include an expansion of the existing federally run Early Head Start, which is aimed at children up to three year old, and supporting voluntary programs where experts visit low-income families to help with parenting skills.

Yet the U.S. ranks low among developed nations in the percentage of children enrolled in pre-K instruction.

“Holy smokes,” tweeted James Heckman, a Nobel Prize economist at the University of Chicago, when he heard of Obama’s proposal.

Heckman is a staunch free-market advocate but one who argues that such government investment will bring major societal and economic returns.

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JASON REED/Reuters

President Obama high-fives children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga. He’s hoping to do the same with Congressional Republicans, who are worried about the quality of the education that will be provided in the expanded pre-K program.

Obama’s plan also includes expanding the existing federally run Early Head Start, which is aimed at children up to three years old, and supporting voluntary programs where experts visit low-income families to help strengthen parenting skills.

The Head Start program, launched by Johnson in 1965 for low-income children from ages three to five, would continue as is.

Congressional Republicans are wary of such a dramatic expansion of early education and they question whether the quality of the pre-K programs can be assured.

Obama confronted a central suspicion when he alluded to the Georgia center’s well-educated staff and said, “This is not babysitting. This is teaching.”

jwarren@nydailynews.com

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