Preschool should be universal option

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: February 21 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:57 am in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Iowa has offered free, voluntary preschool in school districts across the state since 2007. By the fall of 2012, more than half off the preschoolers in 314 districts benefitted from at least 10 hours of weekly instruction.

Now, Democrats who control the state Senate are seeking to expand that program to make room for every 4-year-old. Backers say expanding access would clear waiting lists for the program.

We think expansion is a good idea. If the state is going to offer the promise of early childhood instruction, through schools and their private preschool partners, it should be accessible universally. We’d also be open to a discussion of instructional hours, with expanded hours providing more accessibility parents who work.

It’s true that preschool isn’t cheap. Gov. Terry Branstad has proposed spending nearly $70 million on preschool in the next budget year. The Democratic plan would add more than $30 million annually when fully implemented. Funding would be phased in during the next three years.

We see these dollars as an investment in the state’s children at a critical time in their educational development. Stacks of studies have shown the benefits of quality preschool instruction, and how spending on early childhood education saves dollars that might be spent on social services and even corrections.

Expansion backers say Iowa’s preschool program has helped boost third-grade reading proficiency scores among participants, and there’s evidence that low-income participants need less intensive educational intervention in kindergarten. It’s still too early to fully measure the program’s impact, but initial signs are positive.

The state’s preschool program survived a heated partisan fight in 2011, and Branstad’s steadily rising budgetary commitment to the program is a sure sign that commitment remains solid. The question is whether the educational benefits driving that commitment should be accessible to all who want them. We think the answer is obvious.

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