Thursday, December 16, 2010

Iowa Pre-School Under Attack

Preschool has limited benefits, Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday, and they aren't convinced the state's taxpayer-funded preschool program is the way to use scarce tax money.

"It's very, very questionable whether there is any benefit," Senate Republican leader Paul McKinley said at a legislative forum Wednesday sponsored by "Frankly, it doesn't do any good. It has been shown not to have any impact on student achievement past third grade."

A Democratic leader countered that preschool is critical for helping children succeed, and that the state's subsidized preschool program should be protected. "I think it's a great program, and I don't see us making many changes there," Senate President Jack Kibbie said.

Since the Democrat-controlled Legislature and Gov. Chet Culver created the state-funded voluntary preschool program in 2007, enrollment in the program has jumped from 5,126 to more than 21,000. It's meant to ensure not only that more 4-year-olds go to preschool, but also that they enroll in a quality program.

A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in September showed most Iowans agree with the assumption that free preschool for all Iowa children will pay off in a better-educated work force.

Republican Gov.-elect Terry Branstad has called for spending cuts, including for preschool. Republicans now control the House; Democrats control the Senate.

Rep. Linda Upmeyer, who will be majority leader in the House, questioned whether the state should continue to pay for preschool for the children of middle-class and wealthy Iowans. Preschool is expected to cost the state $80.7 million next year.

"This is a very expensive program," she said during the forum. "The research shows that by about second or third, fourth grade, you cannot tell the difference between a child that has preschool and a child that does not."

Arguably, low-income children get the biggest benefit from preschool, Upmeyer said. But those children were already being served through federally funded Head Start and other early childhood education programs, she said.

Upmeyer said lawmakers face budget choices: Should the state pay for things such as preschool for all families or sabbaticals for university professors when there's a shortfall in the budget for state troopers and a waiting list for mental health services?

Upmeyer said no one has ever been able to pinpoint how many Iowa 4-year-olds were unable to go to preschool before the state ramped up its program, or why they couldn't get access. "So we started this on a premise that, in my mind, is faulty," she said.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who will lead the Democratic minority in the House, said he believes that children who start early with a good education with certified teachers are better off later in life - less likely to go to prison and more likely to get a better-paying job, for instance.

"I thought that was pretty well settled in the minds of most people around the country, based upon research," he said.

McKinley denied that the research indicates that.

Penny Milburn, an Iowa Department of Education consultant specializing in early childhood education, said overall the research indicates that quality preschool programs do make a difference for children.

"There are some studies that show the benefit is minimal, but what we have to think about is the level of quality and staff qualifications," she said.

Asked whether the number of children attending preschool is growing, or whether it's just the number of children going to preschool at the state's expense that's growing, Milburn said: "That's a challenging question to answer. The number entering a quality program with a licensed teacher is growing."

McCarthy said if there's any movement to get rid of the state-funded preschool program, he hopes lawmakers instead compromise with a "means test" based on family income, meaning higher-income Iowans would pay more for their children's preschool while the state continues to pick up the cost for children from lower-income families.

Currently, children from families of all income levels can participate at no charge.

The next session of the Legislature begins in January.