The preschool program will be at the center of Democratic opposition to a “deappropriations” bill the Iowa House Appropriations Committee approved this week. Republicans say House Study Bill 1, which has been renamed House File 45, would save $500 million over three years. Nearly a third of that total would come from eliminating the statewide voluntary preschool program for four-year-olds (estimated to cost $69.9 million in fiscal year 2012 and $75.1 million in fiscal year 2013). Click here for a summary listing the budget cuts and supplemental appropriations in House File 45.
On January 13, House Democrats launched a website to help mobilize Iowans who value the long-term benefits of preschool. Ending the program could affect 20,000 children across the state. This chart (pdf file) shows the preschool enrollment for four-year-olds and cost to the state for each school district. For instance, in the Des Moines area there are 1,335 children enrolled in the preschool program through the Des Moines Community Schools, 235 in the West Des Moines school district, 208 in Johnston, 207 in Southeast Polk, 163 in Norwalk, 147 in Urbandale, and 122 in Ankeny. In the Cedar Rapids area, 473 children are enrolled in preschool through the Cedar Rapids school district and 175 in Linn-Mar.
A public hearing on House File 45 will take place Tuesday, January 18 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the House chambers at the capitol. Only 40 people will be allowed to speak, but any Iowan can send written comments on the bill to lioinfo AT legis.state.ia.us, with “testimony” in the e-mail subject line. House Democrats are also asking members of the public to post comments at the Save Preschool site.
Statehouse Republicans and incoming Governor Terry Branstad want to replace the preschool program with a voucher system geared to low-income families. However, many middle-income families in Iowa are also unable to afford preschool, which can easily cost $700 to $800 per month. If state assistance for middle-class families disappears, many preschools could close for lack of students.
It’s unfortunate that preschool became a partisan issue in Iowa. A Pew Center on the States report published last month found, “Despite persistent budget shortfalls, the majority of state legislatures have once again made the prudent decision to protect pre-k programs.” In addition, more than a dozen states “with control of the executive and legislative branches split between the two major parties” nevertheless “protected their pre-k investments from budget cuts.”