The House passed a new preschool plan on Tuesday by a vote of 55 to 45. The plan would replace the current preschool plan that has been in place since 2007 and is the result of collaboration between the governor’s office and the department of education.
Debate on the bill carried on for nearly four hours as both sides passionately defended their position. Opponents of the new plan made several claims as to the effectiveness and the popularity of the current preschool plan. It was stated repeatedly that school districts, teachers, and parents who have used the program and received free preschool for their children were big fans of the program. It would make sense for those directly benefiting from the program to be fans of it.
But what is being ignored is the fact that over the past three years, as the state has invested over $150 million dollars in preschool, the state has failed in its obligation to fund the other 13 grades that make up primary and secondary education in this state to the sum of $450 million. The governor and the majority party aren’t contending the current program isn’t providing some positive results. What they are concerned with is the unsustainable financial course that the current program is on. Next year it will cost an estimated $75 to $85 million, and within a few years the costs will be annually over $100 million.
As parents of preschoolers who have benefited from the program and teachers and school districts receiving state money for the program proclaim their approval for the current program, those who are indirectly affected by the program, the taxpayers, have recently had their voice heard as well. A poll in the Des Moines Register last week found that while 80% agree that preschoolers should have access to quality preschool, 57% do not believe the state can afford the current plan right now.
The new plan that passed the chamber this week is a fair and balanced middle ground to the preschool problem. It continues ensuring quality by using much similar language to the existing program, including some further standards such as requiring participating preschools to meet the quality guidelines of Head Start, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or Iowa’s Quality Public Preschool Standards. But it ensures this quality while only providing money for those most in need of assistance.
One of the things the bill does on the funding side is takes the funding off of automatic pilot which is currently funding preschool at .6 of the current state funding per pupil. This currently equates to $3,529 per child, or nearly $400 per month. Many superintendents felt they could administer the program for much less than that, and many private preschools currently charge on average about $150 per month. The new funding would be through a yearly appropriation determined by the legislature and passed in the budget. The needs of the program could be assessed yearly and adjusted accordingly. Other states vary wildly on their preschool funding and results. Oklahoma spends nearly $8,000 per child per year on preschool, yet continues to struggle nationally in their K-12 assessment scores. Florida, on the other hand, spends around $2,200 per child, with many attending private preschool programs, and is continually rising in the national assessment tests.
Contrary to debate talking points, the new bill will not lower quality, will not reduce access to preschool, and will not throw out all of the work that has been done. It still accounts for quality and requires providers to meet minimum standards, requires teachers with bachelors degrees and early childhood certification, requires an assessment to track progress, and requires collaboration with other agencies and entities providing early childhood services.
Under the current plan, if a school district chooses not to participate (and 34 don’t), then four year olds in that district do not have the option to participate in the state’s program. The new program will allow any preschool in a district to make that decision, not just the public school. This will help cover 4 year olds in every district. The new program will not pay for preschool for those who can afford to pay for it themselves. The new program will not force private providers to compete with the state at the school district’s discretion. It is a program that gives assistance to those most in need, allows parents a choice of the eligible providers in the district and allows private preschools a stronger voice in the system.
The bill will now travel to the Senate for approval.