Iowa House approves preschool funding cut, scholarships

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DES MOINES – Although characterized as an “assault on 4-year-olds,” the Republican-controlled Iowa House voted 55-45 to reduce the state funding for preschool in order to make the program financially viable.

State funding for programs in 326 of 359 school districts has increased from $44 million to $64 million this year. Left unchanged, the voluntary preschool program, now in its fourth year, will cost the state $70 million in fiscal 2012 and within a few years will cost more than $100 million a year, according to Education Committee Chairman Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia.

“With a $700 million gap between spending and revenues for the next fiscal year, the current preschool program is on a rising cost course that is not sustainable,” Education Committee Chairman Greg Forristall, R-Macedonia, said. The state has spent $150 million on preschool in recent years, he said, but Democratic-controlled legislatures have failed to fund $450 million of its obligation to K-12 education during the same time.

House Democrats painted a different picture. They denied there’s a $700 million budget gap and said Iowa can’t afford to reduce its investment in preschool.

Calling House File 535 “fundamentally flawed,” Rep. Nate Willems, D-Lisbon, questioned the rush to dismantle a program “wildly popular with parents.”

“There is no reason this body needs to take this action this year,” Willems said. “It makes no sense to me why we would try to do preschool on the fly, to do it in an improvisational manner.”

Willems proposed delaying the decision until after a Department of Education study of the feasibility of the GOP proposal of charging preschool tuition based on families’ incomes. That amendment was defeated 38-59.

Democratic supporters of the program are relying on the Senate, where their party has a 26-24 advantage, to prevent the funding reduction.

The House GOP’s plan also is at odds with Gov. Terry Branstad’s preschool plans. He’s proposed $43 million in funding with scholarships of up to $3,000 per child. The House plan would provide $33 million in total funding, which would reduce the scholarship cap to about $2,300 per student.

Branstad expressed optimism his proposal will be approved.

“I’m very hopeful because this is a way that we can preserve the 4-year-old preschool program with a sustainable program, with the finances that the state has, to really target the money to the families that are really needing it,” he said on WHO-AM “Call Governor Branstad” show. “So I am very hopeful that we can get it approved. We’ve worked very hard to put together something that we thought was fair and balanced and also focused the resources to the people with financial need.”

The House plan would replace fully funded, statewide, voluntary preschool program for Iowa 4-year-olds with a program that would provide scholarships to help families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level – about $67,050 for a family of four – send their 4-year-olds to preschool.

Schools could charge tuition based on the family’s ability to pay. Basically, all families would be charged something, as little as $3 a month for those with the lowest incomes.

According to the Governor’s Office, there are approximately 39,000 4-year-olds in Iowa and 23,800 are in families with incomes at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. About 19,000 4-year-olds are enrolled in the state’s voluntary preschool program.

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