Branstad unveils new preschool plan


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Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad unveiled on Tuesday his new preschool program designed to award scholarships to low-income families, setting aside $43.6 million in state appropriations.

“By providing all Iowa children the opportunity to attend preschool, we will reduce the need for special-education services and for children to repeat grades,” Branstad said in a press release.

The Iowa Preschool Scholarship eliminates universal preschool for 4-year-olds, but it aims to provide $3,000 scholarships to eligible 4-year-olds who attend at least 10 hours of preschool a week beginning in the 2011-12 school year.

Under the annual scholarship, families pay costs on a sliding scale depending on federal poverty guidelines up to 300 percent poverty. The plan means higher income families to pay full tuition.

If passed, the plan will replace the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for Four-Year-Old Children, implemented by former Gov. Chet Culver in 2007.

Brian Loring, the executive director of the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County, which offers preschool, expressed concern at a provision no longer requiring certified teachers.

“It’s really the difference between instructional care and custodial care,” Loring said.

But the director said he would have to wait to appraise the legislation.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, had similar misgivings.

“If you are going to have quality preschool you need to have certified teachers,” he said.

The quality standards currently in place — provided under Head Start, the National Association of Education of Young Children, and Iowa Quality Preschool model — are to remain unchanged in Branstad’s proposal.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said Branstad’s effort shows the governor recognizes the importance of early education, though he still supported Culver’s universal preschool system.

“I think, at least now, we’re not leaving our struggling families out of the loop,” Jacoby said. “But you may never know when you are going to be a struggling family, and we need to leave the door open for all children.”

The scholarship may label families as low income, he said, causing reluctance to apply for the program.

“My family didn’t have a lot of money,” Jacoby said. “My parents would not, out of pride, would not have signed up for this if it were means-tested.”

Rep. Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, a member of the Education Committee, said the plan relies too heavily on administration by the Department of Education.

“I think it’s a move in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not exactly what the House was interested in terms of some of the policies, but we’ll give it a fair chance.”

Forristall said Branstad is highly determined to pass the bill.

But Rep. Steven Lukan, R-New Vienna, said the governor’s plan could minimize government involvement with preschool funding and decrease the costs.

“We’ll achieve the goal by getting more kids in the preschool program but also those who are able to afford it will help finance it,” he said.

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