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GOP senator sees merit in Obama's 'great' pre-K idea

For the first time in recent memory, President Obama put universal pre-kindergarten on the national radar last week, throwing his support to making this a key national priority. As we discussed last week, the value of these early-education investments is overwhelming, but as is often the case, proponents have to think of ways to overcome reflexive Republican opposition.

With this in mind, I found Sen. Johnny Isakson's (R-Ga.) comments to MSNBC's Chris Hayes over the weekend to be particularly interesting.

For context, note that the two states that have done the most to advance pre-K are Georgia and Oklahoma, so Isakson was sticking up for his own home state when he told Hayes, "The thought that ran through my mind when the president was speaking is, 'This is a great idea.'"

So far, so good, right? Given the deep political divisions in Washington, and the radicalization of Republican politics, there probably weren't many GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill last week for whom "great idea" came to mind in response to ideas in Obama's State of the Union.

But you had to know a "but" was coming.

Isakson added that universal pre-K would mean "a 6% increase in the number of teachers you have to hire, the number of classrooms you have to build, the amount of money you have to spend. We've got to find the money to do it."

That's true. Over the last few years, school teachers have been laid off in droves as economic austerity measures gutted public-sector employment, and an expansion of early-ed would mean hiring some of them back. We could also presumably get some economic stimulus by building more classrooms for pre-K students and their instructors.

So what's the problem?

Isakson added, "We can't afford to add a cost on government. You have to find the funds to do it. You can't just hope the payback comes in dollars. The payback comes in a better life for those children, better quality of their health, better quality of their education. But we need a payback to pay the tax dollars it's going to take to fund the programs."

In other words, Isakson believes universal pre-K is "a great idea," and is confident such an investment would be great for everyone. He also believes taxpayers shouldn't pay for it, which might represent a tough hurdle for Obama and other Democratic proponents of the idea to clear.

Still, I choose to embrace a glass-half-full approach to this. Isakson didn't say universal pre-K is a radical socialist plot to destroy families by forcing small children into government indoctrination centers; he said the president's vision is "a great idea."

These days, I'll take good news from congressional Republicans where I can find it.