Editorial: Expand access to Pre-K


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The Iowa Legislature has had a contentious start to the year, with proposals to increase the minimum wage, ban telemedicine abortions, and other issues that have made the closely divided body fall mostly along party lines.

The next big debate? Publicly funded preschools.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, has led the charge on expanding the Iowa Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, created in 2007 to fund preschools for 4-year-olds. He aims to increase participation in schools across the state and decrease waiting lists for students with a new bill, to be examined by a Senate subcommittee on Feb. 21.

“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.”

After compiling third-grade reading proficiency levels, Quirmbach said, the students who participated in the program had a significant difference over 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.”

Skeptics shouldn’t look at funding for preschools as just more spending but rather as an economic investment. As President Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address, “Every $1 we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on.”

The savings come in part from reductions in social costs and in developing skills early on that are vital for a productive workforce. The fastest period of brain development occurs in the first five years of age, and the research shows that students who complete preschool are more prepared for K-12 education than their peers who don’t.

Expanding preschool could also help reduce inequality. A report from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that economically disadvantaged children would be the greatest long-term beneficiaries from preschool.

Simply put: This legislation is a no-brainer. The foundation for funding preschools is already set with the Voluntary Preschool Program, and Quirmbach’s proposals to increase its reach are hardly radical. Yet there is resistance from some Republican legislators, and whether Gov. Terry Branstad would support the bill is not known.

However, the governor’s funding target for preschool education is encouraging. Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said his recommended budget for fiscal 2015 is set at $69.79 million for preschool funding; that figure was $58.4 million in fiscal 2012. Branstad is clearly willing to invest more into early education, a trend followed by many other states that provide preschool aid.

According to the Education Commission of the States, funding for pre-kindergarten programs increased in 30 out of the 40 states that offered them in 2013-2014, and 10 of those states increased funding by more than 20 percent. Iowa GOP members should take note: The three largest increases came from Republican-dominated Legislatures in Texas, Michigan, and South Carolina.

Investing in our preschools shouldn’t be a partisan issue. It is vital to prepare young children for education, as researchers and the vast majority of states with Pre-K funding programs have shown. Iowa legislators would be wise to follow in their footsteps.

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