Iowa Senate Democrats seek preschool expansion

“The problem now is we’re not reaching enough kids"

Rod Boshart
Published: February 13 2014 | 3:04 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:37 am in

DES MOINES – Preschool programs in Iowa would receive an extra $15 million over the next three years to expand services for more 4-year-olds under a plan by majority Democrats in the Iowa Senate designed to expand access for more early learners.

In a separate announcement, Senate Democrats also said they hope to remove barriers for low-income working families struggling to cover the cost of childcare and to raise the threshold for the state tax credit that helps Iowa middle-class families – many with two working parents -- defray childcare costs.

Senators said some preschools are unable to meet the current demand and the additional money would help them hire more teachers or expand facilities to accommodate families whose kids in under-served group currently are being denied access to quality early-childhood education.

The yearly infusion of $5 million into the state’s voluntary preschool program would build on positive results that have shown up in reading proficiency scores in elementary classes and other improvements since the state-funded preschool approach was launched in 2007, said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames.

“The problem now is we’re not reaching enough kids,” said Quirmbach, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “Amongst the various preschool programs, we’re only reaching 65 percent. We’d like to move that up at least as high as 85 percent.”

Before establishing the 2007 program, about 19 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children in Iowa were served by quality preschools. By fall 2012, almost 21,500 Iowa preschoolers (55 percent) in 314 school districts benefitted from public-private partnerships providing at least 10 hours per week of developmentally appropriate instruction. Cost to school aid is about $60 million.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said he has not been approached by Senate Democrats on the subject of preschool expansion and he was “not in a position to say yes or no” to it when the topic came up at GOP leaders’ weekly news conference.

On the childcare issue, Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, chairwoman of the Senate Human Resources Committee, said a parent earning $9 per hour with a young child spends a “crushing” 40 percent of a weekly paycheck on childcare.

She said Iowa’s Child Care Assistance Program helps lower-income working families by paying all or part of the cost of high quality childcare, but the support ends the moment a family earns a dollar more than the $22,500 “financial cliff” specified in state law.

“Rather than throwing families over a financial cliff, childcare assistance should gradually be reduced as parents gain new skills and increase their income,” Ragan said. She proposed smoothing out the financial cliff by increasing the maximum family income while gradually increasing copays as income rises.

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