On May 10, 2007, Governor Chet Culver signed House File 877, which established Iowa’s Statewide Voluntary Preschool Program (SWVPP) for four-year olds. The idea was to provide an opportunity for all young children in Iowa to have access to a quality preschool. Iowa used to be on the forefront for high-quality education standards, and I commend our elected officials for trying ways to get us back on top again. Unfortunately, as usually is the case, not all good ideas come from those we elect, and the unintended consequences of their decisions are rarely examined in the hurry to “do something now”.
Under the current SWVPP, parents have access to at least 10 hours a week of preschool in a public school district for their four year old at little to no charge. According to the Department of Education, in the 2013-2014 school year, public schools get $3,027 per child enrolled into the program. The teacher to child ratio must not be greater than 10-1 and the maximum group size no greater than 20. Participation is not compulsory according to the Iowa Department of Education, however, once enrolled, a child is required to regularly attend or risk being removed from the school’s enrollment roster. Currently, all preschool subsidies are allocated to only public preschools; parents will not receive the subsidy if they choose a private preschool. However, a public school is able to choose to contract with a local private preschool, even faith based ones (as long as there is no religious instruction). This stipulation was added to the legislation in an attempt to prevent the undermining of the existing preschool small businesses.
Unfortunately, the latter concern is one of several that I feel is rightly holding up new legislation to expand the public preschool program even further. Senate Study Bill 3155 seeks to provide a three year additional monetary stipend to get public schools to expand their preschool program. As a result, there is growing concern that the State of Iowa would be essentially funding the demise of the private preschool industry. Under the bill, public schools would no longer have a reason to contract their preschool program to the private industry, as they will now be given more funds to expand their own. Not only that, it also creates an even greater incentive than there is now for public schools to build more facilities and add staff in order to grow their preschool program. While the bill allows the additional state monetary subsidy to defray some of the initial costs, it certainly will not defray all of them and will only be provided for three years. So who do you think would be paying for the difference? That’s right, the local property taxpayers. So not only would legislators be killing the private preschool industry (as well as the jobs that go with it), but would also be increasing the cost to all Iowans to expand this program now, and then sticking local taxpayers with higher property taxes to keep paying for it later .
Shifting children from the non-public preschools to public preschools is not an expansion. It’s just a rearranging of desk chairs at taxpayer expense. How many financially strapped parents would opt for a private preschool when they could use a government funded public preschool instead? I don’t think that private preschools should be limited to only those who can afford them. But there is a solution. Preschool vouchers can be provided to interested parents, giving them the freedom to choose the best option for their children. Plus, if parents chose a private preschool, any facility or staff expansion cost would then be borne by the private preschool, instead of local property taxpayers. It would be a win-win: Iowa children would still get the education everyone wants and it won’t stifle parental choice or impact property taxes. If public schools want to compete for students, then that’s fine – we just need to ensure that it’s on a level playing field. Putting a thumb on the scale doesn’t benefit anyone but the one with the thumb.
Our school district does not currently contract with other local private preschools and has the goal to eventually expand to provide 4 year-old preschool to all eligible district students. It is currently only limited by space. So, keep this in mind when you vote on April 1st – if that $4 million bond passes, you may be voting (and paying) to put our local preschool small businesses out of business.
The current SWVPP program can be made better so that it is fair to everyone. SSB 3155 isn’t the way.
Sources: Jim Flansburg of the Iowa Department of Education, text of bills HF 877 & SFB 3155, our school district elementary Principal