Officials: Branstad plan would mean preschool cuts
Superintendents at some of Iowa's largest school districts predict Gov. Terry Branstad's plan to replace the state's current preschool system with a scholarship program based on financial need would cause fewer children to enroll, forcing districts to lay off teachers and other staff.
Those predictions run counter to statements by Branstad, who has argued scholarships combined with better outreach could increase preschool enrollment, which now stands at about half of Iowa's eligible 4-year-olds.
An analysis by The Associated Press demonstrates how the program, projected to cost $70 million next year, is spread to 325 of Iowa's 359 school districts -- a participation rate of 90 percent. The AP obtained data for the current year and projected numbers for the upcoming 2011-2012 fiscal year by combining certified enrollment numbers with the amount the state spends per pupil, based on information from the Iowa Department of Education.
The data show how the funding reaches every part of the state, from $4.7 million in Des Moines to more than $574,000 in Iowa City and about $35,000 in tiny Farragut in southwest Iowa.
This funding would drop significantly under Branstad's plan to cut preschool spending to $43 million annually by offering parents scholarships. Under that plan, parents would pay between $3 and $133 a month for preschool, based on income, with higher income families getting no state help.
A family of four earning about $67,000, for example, wouldn't receive any state aid.
The House, controlled by Republicans, has approved Branstad's plan, but it has stalled in the Senate, where Democrats who hold a slim majority have said they won't accept cuts to the program. If lawmakers can't agree to a measure the current preschool program will continue.
Funding for preschool is wrapped into overall state funding for schools. Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said that means Branstad can't specifically line-item veto funding for preschool from that larger budget bill.
"He has to either veto the global number or in some way try to force us to act on his recommendations," Gronstal said.
The state now gives districts $3,530 per preschool student. Under Branstad's plan, that would drop to between $1,798 and $2,967 per student, depending on income levels. This year, 325 of the state's 359 districts participated in the preschool program.
Tim Albrecht, the governor's spokesman, said Branstad still believes his plan can increase preschool participation.
"I think if you just look at the dollars and cents you're missing the whole picture," Albrecht said. "Our projection is for 70 percent enrollment for four-year-olds in preschool and we intend to meet that goal."
Superintendents in three of Iowa's largest school districts disagreed, saying they think Branstad's proposal would mean fewer students, a drop in funding and teacher layoffs.
Des Moines Public Schools, for example, planned to use the state funding in the next school year to teach 1,335 students. The district expects about half of that amount under Branstad's plan.
"We're trying to do our best to guess what our enrollment might look like next year, to make sure what we can pay for and beyond that to notify teachers that they've been declared excess," said Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Nancy Sebring.
Julio Almanza, the superintendent for Davenport Community Schools, said the district is preparing to lose between $800,000 and $1.5 million in state funding for its preschool program. Almanza said Branstad's plan would "absolutely" result in fewer students and teachers.
"(Parents) currently do not have to pay for the majority of the programs they're receiving," Almanza said. "If they end up having to pay, some families will not be able to, even with a stipend or voucher system."
Almanza said the district now serves about 600 preschool students and employs 47 teachers and 92 teaching assistants.
If Branstad's plan is approved, Sioux City Community Schools Superintendent Paul Gausman said the best he can hope is that the 750 preschool students remains stable. That would run counter to the district's efforts to enroll up to 1,000 preschool students, or 83 percent of the 1,200 4-year-olds in the district.
"The students who are high poverty students will probably get to participate and the students who come from a more upper-middle class situation will probably still participate," Gausman said. "It's the students in the middle of the group that we'll have to keep our eyes on."
Sebring said there's no question enrollment will drop in the district due to Branstad's plan. There are 1,135 students taking part in the district's state preschool program, with 52 teachers and 12 teacher associates attached to state preschool funding.
While many district officials express concern about Branstad's plan, some in small districts that don't now participate said they didn't think the change would mean much in their areas.
Nathan Marting, the superintendent at Jesup Community Schools, said families in his northeast Iowa community can enroll their children in preschool without taking part in the state's preschool system. Tuition is $275 a month, Marting said, and families who need assistance can receive money from other sources, such as the federal Head Start program.
The district has 961 students, including 61 enrolled in preschool.
"We could just keep everything the same and not be connected to everything with the state, and we're growing our program as it is already," Marting said. "I don't think it would probably make a heck of a lot of difference."
Robert Cue, superintendent of West Delaware County Community Schools in northeast Iowa, also said Branstad's plan would mean little in his community, which relies on private preschool.
"We're very happy with our programs in the community," Cue said. "There's not a sense of urgency to have the school district take over those programs. People that want to send their kid to preschool are able to."
If the Legislature approves Branstad's plan, Almanza said he hopes lawmakers could delay the change by a year to give districts time to adapt.
"That's probably not a good political decision for them," Almanza said. "But from an educational perspective to make such a huge change into a program that has been successful, that would be the best way to go."
Sebring said she'd like to see both parties work together to create a long-term, sustainable plan for early childhood education.
"Instead of the political tail wagging the educational dog we would like to see a more thoughtful approach," Sebring said.