The Preschool Discussion

In Gov. Culver’s final speech to the legislative body this week he mentioned the successes his administration achieved with preschool in the state. He claimed that 90% of Iowa’s four-year olds now have the opportunity to attend preschool, up from just 5% a few years ago. His comments were more than likely a response to both House Republican and incoming Gov. Branstad’s plans to cut funding for his administration’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program (SWVPP). But his numbers don’t necessarily make sense as it relates to the SWVPP.

The 90% and 5% figures Gov. Culver mentioned are misleading. His SWVPP, which is what GOP leaders have taken issue with, has an enrollment of 19,800 for the 2010-11 school year. These are the latest numbers taken from school head counts in October 2010. When compared with the estimated 39,267 4-year olds in the state, the SWVPP accounts for 50.4% of 4-year olds. It is likely he is counting access opportunities created by private preschools, parochial preschools, and other state and federal programs such as Head Start, Shared Visions, Title I provisions, and Special Education.

In the 07/08 school year these state and federal programs served the following numbers of children:
 SWVPP – 5,126
 Federal Early Childhood grants – 5,872
 Shared visions – 2,362
 Early Childhood Iowa (formerly Empowerment) – 11,111
 Head Start – 7,934

In the 09/10 school year there were an estimated 2,591 enrolled in private preschools enrolled through federal programs. It is likely these numbers are low as accounting for preschool attendance outside of the Department of Education run SWVPP is not complete.

The non-SWVPP programs obviously preceded the SWVPP, and the 07/08 clearly account for more than 5% of the state’s 4-year olds. It’s unclear where he obtained his number from.

What is of concern to the majority party is the cost of universal and free preschool in an environment when the state is facing a spending gap of nearly $700 million for the coming fiscal year. Last year’s majority party raised spending authority for K-12 school districts but then proceeded to underfund that authority by over $150 million, saddling property tax payers with the bill. Across the board cuts by the Governor forced the lay-off of K-12 teachers all across the state, putting the education of kids in those schools hit hardest in jeopardy.

Yet we can somehow expand the estimate $70 to $80 million we are putting into preschool? When K-12 funding is missing over $230 million for the upcoming fiscal year ($150 million underfunding, plus nearly $80 million in one-time money), how can we justify any additional money for preschool?

House GOP leaders plan to work with the incoming governor who said he envisions a significant change in the preschool program. He has stated that his “approach would be to partner with nonprofit organizations and businesses and provide state scholarships to people with financial need and not embark on a new program.”

This is in line with his recent appointee to head the state Department of Education, Jason Glass. Glass, in an interview with the register answered, “Preschool is critically important, especially for families in poverty, families that are economically disadvantaged. We’re talking about a $700 million budget deficit next year, we’ve got to be much more thoughtful about how we spend money. We have to get more efficient with state dollars. If you want to be efficient with how you spend money on preschool, it needs to be targeted to the kids that are going to get the most benefit, which is going to be the kids that are in poverty.”

The current pre-school program is too expensive and blindly distributes taxpayer money without regard for the financial need of the family. Iowans were able to send their kids to preschool before the Democrats program and they will be able to do after it is changed. An effective model would allow local communities to distribute preschool money on a needs basis, leaving families who can afford preschool to pay for their preschool. The Legislature will work to develop a new voucher system that is affordable for the taxpayer funding it and helps pay for preschool for those who cannot afford it.

While this may not be the solution policymakers on either side of the aisle desire, it may be the most viable option considering Iowa’s current political and economic climate.

House Republicans support preschool. We have supported preschool, and we’ve supported it primarily through the empowerment process and creating some of those partnerships and impacting in particular those families that need help.

Empowerment/ECI is much more plausible and affordable option. It is already in place and is already helping families with preschool, day care, and a number of other early childhood related issues. Republicans feel that it’s best for the local communities to assess the needs of their community and offer preschool assistance from the local level and not on the backs of property tax payers state-wide. That will address the income scale issue by not blindly offering preschool to those that can already afford to pay for it themselves.

Contact- Jason Chapman 1-5290