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Creeping concerns about preschool proposal

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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Finger painting and learning the ABCs just got a little more costly for Iowa’s 4-year-olds.

At Monday’s press conference, Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds launched their proposal to repeal a program that provided free preschool to every child in the state of Iowa. Under the new Iowa Preschool Program, all parents will be expected to contribute to their child’s tuition, although need-based scholarship money is available. The $43.6 million program would halve the current state spending on preschool.

Branstad’s cost-cutting measures are certainly a sign of the times and have drawn some scrutiny on this page before. His earlier announcement that he would eliminate universal voluntary preschool raised some hackles in the educational-policy circuit, but his replacement program seems largely inoffensive. If ideal funding situations can only exist in budget surpluses, the Branstad proposal could be worse; as it is, it raises some strong concerns about quality and public-private competition.

Under Branstad’s plan, eligible 4-year-olds up from families who make up to 300 percent of the poverty line would pay fees on a sliding scale, with $3,000 per year scholarships (to both public and private schools) available. Students would have to attend preschool for a minimum of 10 hours per week.

But not all preschools are created equal, and not all preschools have the same price point. Public and cooperative preschools, which typically have much lower tuition than private institutions, have expressed concern about the proposal.

Nancy Lilienthal, the director of Stepping Stones Preschool in Iowa City, is definitely worried about possible impacts on enrollment.

Many of her preschoolers come three days a week for about four hours each day. The program, which costs $230 a month, runs well under $3,000 a year. So people eligible for the scholarship might go somewhere else to get their money’s worth.

“Everybody’s program is a different price,” Lilienthal told the *DI* Editorial Board. “That’s really going to hurt us.”

The same concern is not shared by private schools. Carly Andrews, the head of the private Willowwind school (whose full-time Montessori preschool costs $675 per month), is not worried about enrollment — although she expressed slight worry at the devaluing of a preschool education.

“This is the age we think is most important,” she told the Editorial Board. “We see families sacrificing a lot to ensure that their children have this opportunity.”

Open-enrollment funding, under which the Iowa Preschool Scholarship would fall, does raise the possibility of “pricing out” less-expensive public and cooperative programs — which naturally leads to increasing privatization of Iowa’s education.

“If you take [public schools] out of the picture, you vastly reduce the resources and expertise available to ensure that taxpayers are getting something out of their dollar,” Steve Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, told the Editorial Board. He believes that local public schools play a vital role in the quality of education and that their support is needed to prepare kids to succeed in school later in life.

Branstad contends that his new plan will allow parents to feel more involved in their children’s education and help by “raising academic achievement.” But academic achievement runs perpendicular to one of the provisions in Branstad’s plan, which would no longer require preschool teachers to be certified by the state. Although evaluation standards would be the same — and the proposed funding includes new oversight positions — the absence of certified teachers can blur the lines between preschool and daycare.

While many people think they could be a preschool teacher, Barnett begged to differ.

“Put me in a class with 20 children, [and] that is a whole different thing,” he said. “It’s a very difficult job … I think it should be clear to most people that the value of a good preschool education depends on the teacher.”

Branstad’s proposal might not reduce the ability of low-income families to send their child to school, but it’s a grab bag of other concerns, from instructional quality to encroaching privatization. While it’s not a severe miscarriage of educational policy, we’re still cautious about the effects of the smaller provisions and the proposal’s long-term effect. A strong preschool experience is the foundation of a child’s education, and the weakening of Iowa’s preschools is something that should not be risked.

“Iowa will go from being one of the leading states in terms of provision of quality preschool to one of the states at the bottom in terms of state support for preschool education,” Barnett predicted. We hope that’s not the case.


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