- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - School and teacher associations supported a push for early childhood education in Nebraska at a hearing Tuesday before a legislative committee.

The Education Committee heard testimony on a series of bills relating to early childhood education. Sen. Kate Sullivan of Cedar Rapids, chairwoman of the committee, introduced a bill that would allocate an additional $4.6 million for early childhood education grants for next year. The grants are used by schools to create preschool programs, Sullivan said.

The money asked for is not a new appropriation but is money left on the table from the Education Committee’s budget, Sullivan said. Lawmakers included $3.6 million for early childhood education grants in the state’s two-year budget last year.

John Skretta, superintendent of the Norris School District, testified in support of the bills on behalf of Norris and Stance. Stance, or Schools Taking Action for Nebraska Children’s Education, is a collation of mid-sized school districts promoting best practices, Skretta said.

Norris has four preschool classes.

“Preschool programming that’s high quality, from highly qualified educators can really make a big difference in some things like pre-literacy skills that are really fundamental to kindergarten success,” he said.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha introduced a bill that would, as amended, provide $400,000 for the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska over the next two years.

Trevor Fitzgerald, legislative aide for Mello, presented the bill to the committee.

The institute would use the money to study the issues and implement programs related to improving both quantity and quality of the state’s early childhood workforce, Fitzgerald said.

Samuel Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, testified in support of the bill.

The job of the institute is to improve learning and developmental outcomes of children from birth to age 8 with a focus on those most at risk, such as those in poverty or with developmental delays, he said.

Evidence shows that investment intervention in young children pays off in the form of reduced arrests, more high school graduations and fewer teenage pregnancies, he said.

“It’s time to make a commitment upstream, where children are youngest, most vulnerable and most responsive,” he said.

Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha introduced a bill that would create a group that would plan a unified early childhood data system in the state. Each year, millions are invested in early childhood care, special education programming, Head Start and other programs, she said. The data could be used to show the impact of the programs, Howard said.

The Education Committee included in its state aid bill the intent for all children to have access to early childhood education programs at least the year before they attend kindergarten.

The committee took no immediate action on the bills.

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The Buffett institute bill is LB864. The $4.6 million bill is LB984.The data bill is LB992. The early childhood education intent bill is LB967.

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