- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Expanding access to publicly funded preschool in Iowa is a top priority for Democrats in the Legislature this year, but it’s not clear Republican Gov. Terry Branstad or Republican lawmakers are on board with the idea.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said he has been working on legislation to expand the Iowa Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program, which was established in 2007 to fund preschool for 4-year-olds. Quirmbach, a professor at Iowa State University, expressed concern that there are not always enough public preschool spots available, meaning some kids may end up on waiting lists.

“We have strong belief in the value of preschool. We want every kid eligible and whose parents want them to participate, to be able to,” Quirmbach said.

Quirmbach said his bill, which he expects to bring before the Senate soon, would provide funding to eliminate waiting lists for pre-K programs. He said it would be phased in over three years, starting in the fall of 2015. He declined to provide a cost estimate.

The state-funded preschool program has steadily grown and most districts in the state now participate. The program was offered to 4-year-olds in 314 of the state’s 348 school districts during the 2012-2013 school, with about 20,000 4-year-olds attending.

According to U.S. Census data, that number represents about half of the 4-year-olds living in Iowa in 2012.

Preschool spending is on the rise in many states, including those with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures. According to a recent report by the Education Commission for the States, in the 2013-2014 school year, funding rose in 30 of the 40 states that provide preschool aid.

But there may not be much appetite for such a move in Iowa, where the Republicans control the state House and governor’s office, while Democrats hold a majority in the state Senate.

When Branstad took office in 2011, returning for his fifth term after some time away from elected office, he sought to limit preschool funding to low income families, while Republicans taking over the state House tried to slash funding for the program. Both efforts proved unsuccessful.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he’d have to see a bill before commenting on whether he’d support more money for preschool. Branstad said he’d still like to see the funding focused on the most needy.

“We’ll be glad to review and consider what the Legislature may look at, but we need to do it in a fiscally responsible way. I would like to focus the resources more on children at risk and from families that otherwise have not been able to get preschool education as opposed to many other families that have been paying for it themselves in the past,” Branstad said.

The state pays a per-pupil amount for preschool that is about half of the per-student allocation for K-12 students. In 2012-2013, that worked out to about $60 million in funding. In the current school year, the state expects to spend $66 million.

Just how many children can’t get into a preschool school program for 4-year-olds is hard to say. The state doesn’t keep any records on waiting lists and district administrators say that the numbers vary and can be hard to pin down for a variety of reasons. For example, parents may apply to several programs for one child.

Some school officials said they do turn kids away at times.

Ashley Becker, early childhood director for the Urbandale School District, said there were about 50 children on the district’s 4-year-old preschool waiting list at the beginning of this academic year, though she said some of those kids may end up going to another district or program. Currently, she said, they have 149 4-year-olds in a mixture of full-time and part time programs.

Becker noted that even with more funding, the district would face challenges in expanding pre-school.

“Our number one issue right now in Urbandale is the space,” Becker said. “Preschool right now is very successful, but with us growing and the district growing, we don’t have the space to serve as many kids at a time.”

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said preschool programs benefit students both by enhancing academic skills and helping them understand how to behave at school. Barnett said research shows that preschool can help boost performance for kids from a range of economic backgrounds.

“The advantage of a preschool program is it can help kids get ready. That can be in language and cognitive ability…It can also be what’s called executive functions, self-regulation. These abilities include the ability to focus on what someone else wants you to focus on. Also, the ability to plan,” Barnett said.

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