Republican legislative leaders say it is “questionable” whether preschool is of value to all students. The comments come as lawmakers prepare to debate Governor-elect Branstad’s call to end state funding for public preschool programs. 

“The research shows that by about second or third, fourth grade you cannot tell the difference between a child that has  preschool and a child that does not, but arguably the biggest benefit comes from the lowest income kids, that those kids are the ones that likely don’t have the interactions and the opportunities,” says Representative Linda Upmeyer, who will be the House Republican Leader in 2011. “And those kids were already being served through HeadStart…and through other programs.” 

Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley agrees. “It’s very, very questionable whether there is benefit,” McKinley says.

Upmeyer also says when former Governor Vilsack — a Democrat — pushed to start having the state pay for early childhood education, legislators were not told how many four-year-olds were unable to enroll in a preschool program.

“We didn’t know then and we did not know when we passed this bill this past year how many…four-year-olds were not able to get into a school and what were the barriers for the ones that could not,” Upmeyer says. “So we started this on a premise that in my mind is faulty…This is a very expensive program.”

The legislators made their comments this morning during a forum at Drake University that was organized by  Senate President Jack Kibbie predicted he and fellow Democrats will resist Republican efforts to skuttle state support of preschool.

“Probably draw a line in the sand on that issue,” Kibbie said. “And you know the business community…that’s where this issue came from.”

Several years ago — during Governor Vilsack’s tenure — the Iowa Business Council made state support of preschool its top priority. 

House Democratic Leader Kevin McCarthy cited research during his remarks on the topic. 

“I thought that the concept was pretty well settled, that the more you invest in education — particularly for three- and four-year-olds — the better you do with that age group, that life will be much, much better for that individual later on, a job that pays better, etc.,” McCarthy said. “They’re less likely to be in prison. They’re more likely to have a job that pays better. I thought that was pretty well settled in the minds of most people around the country, based upon research.” 

Governor Culver sought to make state funding for preschool programs a major issue in the election this year, touting his administration’s expansion of preschool programs to 325 Iowa school districts.  Thirty-eight states currently provide free or subsidized public preschool. 

Branstad has indicated he would support subsidizes for low-income parents who want to send their kids to preschool, but he wants to end the push to have “universal” preschool for all four-year-olds in Iowa.