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Preschool debate on the forefront of legislators

BY ABIGAIL MEIER | FEBRUARY 12, 2014 5:00 AM

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Four year-olds are at the top of the Legislature’s list.

Publicly funded preschools have become a major priority in the Iowa Legislature as policymakers debate about increasing funds for early education programs. A subcommittee will examine a bill on Feb. 21.

With many Republican lawmakers on the fence on increasing funding, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he has worked vigorously to increase funding throughout the state. 

“We would like to take away from waiting lists and want schools to expand their capacity,” Quirmbach said.  “… If they can find a seat for everyone in first grade, it shouldn’t be a problem with finding them a seat for preschool.”

Quirmbach has been working on legislation to expand the Iowa Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program — created in 2007 to fund preschools for 4-year-olds — to increase participation in schools across the state and decrease waiting lists.

After compiling third grade reading proficiency levels, Quirmbach said, the students who participated in the program had a significant difference between those who did not attend preschool.

“We need to get more participation from low income families and racial minorities,” he said. “Those groups tend to be further behind [in] reading proficiency but those groups are the ones that gain the most from these programs.” 

He said about 10 percent of the districts that do not participate in the voluntary program — a statistic Quirmbach wants to change.

Mike Cormack, policy liaison for the Iowa Department of Education, said one major argument is the varying participation from around the state.

“In some cases, some areas of the state [have] more needs than others,” Cormack said.  “This is a fairly new program for the state of Iowa, and the Legislature is making adjustments to make it properly meet the needs of the state, and it’s not easy to do because there is an uneven need around the state.”

One point Cormack said the Legislature is having trouble with is appropriately deciding how much money should be distributed state wide and how those dollars are spent.  He said the Iowa Department of Education will continue to “stay above the fray” of the arguments on preschool funding and instead continue to provide information to the Legislature to come to a decision. 

Sally Hoelscher, the president of the Iowa City School Board, said she also favors the expansion of publically funded preschools. 

“Studies have shown early intervention makes a huge difference in a child’s ability to learn, to read, and subsequently enhances their performance in school,” she said.  “Having access to school for all children makes a huge difference.”

Hoelscher said overcrowding and waiting lists have not been a huge problem in Iowa City, but they have been lobbying for the state to increase funding for a while.

Last year, Gov. Terry Branstad called for and signed transformational education reform and the largest investment in Iowa’s schools in the state’s history. Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said his recommended budget for fiscal 2015 is set at $69.79 million for preschool funding. 

According to a policy brief from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership, funding for the Voluntary Preschool Program was reduced from $64.5 million in fiscal 2011 to $58.4 million in fiscal 2012. 

“Gov. Branstad would be glad to review legislation, but he believes funding should be done in a fiscally responsible way,” Centers wrote in an email.  “To avoid the drastic and irresponsible across-the-board budget cuts administered by the previous administration that adversely affected Iowa’s schools.”


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