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Iowa City reacts to Obama's preschool expansion discussions

BY LAUREN COFFEY | FEBRUARY 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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Four-year-olds run about a colorful room, surrounded by books, easels, and dress-up clothing. These children are not only here to have fun but also to learn.

During President Obama’s State of the Union address last week,  he spoke  briefly about his vision to expand public preschools. Obama said he hoped to reach out to lower- and middle-income 4-year-old children. This plan follows rising amounts of research showing how effective attending preschool is.

Although local officials are in favor of providing more accessible preschool education, some expressed concern with the lack of concrete details that would put a plan in place.

“It would be plausible; we just don’t know many of the details of the collaboration between the state and federal government,” said Penny Milburn, a consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “We need to look at the requirements and how they would be implemented.”

Iowa currently already has a preschool initiative in place — the Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program for 4 Year Olds, implemented in 2007 by former Gov. Chet Culver. It had the original intention of helping lower- and middle-income families, but now has been turned into a first-come, first-served basis.

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said he believes Iowa has the highest amount of working parents in the United States, leaving inadequate education for children.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Jacoby said. “If we’re truly going to be bold, we need to do it right. Any teacher or parent will tell you how important preschool is. I think it is plausible to make sure every child has access [to preschool].”

One Republican senator — Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, is more hesitant about the idea, because he believes both Democrats and Republicans have focused more time and effort on K-12 education.

“The president, like most other proposals, offered very few details [about the preschool expansion],” Johnson said. “I don’t believe the federal government should dangle a check in front of us. We’ve made no progress on the deficit. Also, there has been very little talk from members of either party about preschools. Most of the focus on education has been on the education reform plan [regarding kindergarten through 12th grade students].”

Milburn said 20,000 4-year-olds in Iowa are enrolled in preschool this school year. In addition to the multiple preschools Iowa offers, there are also more specialized programs through the Iowa Department of Education to help special needs children as well as low-income students — Headstart and Iowa School Visions for Preschools, respectively.

One preschool owner has more reservations with the expansion, citing a business issue with the initiative.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Heather Norman, owner of the Kinder Farm preschool in Iowa City. “I fully support giving education to all children, but if a parent is given an option of a free program [what Obama’s goal is] or one they pay for, which do you think they’ll choose? Private businesses can’t compete with a free program.”


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