State Senators briefly engaged in a testy debate about Iowa’s public preschool programs, a debate that included references to Nazi Germany and Communist China. 

Backers of state-run preschool programs say it’s a competitiveness issue with other countries where preschool is mandatory. Senator Mark Chelgren, a Republican from Ottumwa, sparked strong reaction from his colleagues when he said this: “The Chinese are taking two and three year olds and educating them and, as a student of history, I also know the Nazis, the Soviets, a whole variety of groups, a whole variety of countries take their children because it’s not just that up to age six they’re so maleable. The day after they are born is the day they learn the most, percentage-wise.”

Chelgren argued education should be the responsibility of parents, not the state. “If it is all about indoctriminating the child, I would use the exact same arguments that the Nazis used, that we should take children immediately — as soon as we recognize they have potential,” Chelgren said. “What I would challenge us with, instead, is to put the responsibility on the parents because it is parents’ responsibility and families’ responsibility to make sure that in the formative years of growing as a child they are taught the values and they are taught and educated by their families.”

Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal responded. “We don’t try to indoctrinate them.  We don’t try to change who they are. We don’t try to change them into Democrats — or Repubicans,” Gronstal said. “…To compare it to totalitarian regimes does a disservice to a half million kids in K-12 education, another 25,000 or 30,000 in early childhood education.”

Senator Tom Courtney, a Democrat from Burlington, was even more blunt. “I visited Black Hawk Preschool in Burlington. Didn’t see any Nazis.  Didn’t see any indoctrination,” Courtney said. “I saw a young teacher named Rachel who was trying to teach about 40 kids, trying to give them a little head start when the enter kindergarten next year.”

Senate Republican Leader Paul McKinley of Chariton jumped to Chelgren’s defense. “Senator Chelgren was not accusing the education system of indoctrinating like totalitarian governments,” McKinley said.  “Rather he was making a point that children’s minds and children are very impressionable at that age. Good heavens, I think we should all strive to have parents more involved.”

Chelgren eventually spoke for himself. “I have already heard talk from (Democrats) of pre-preschool. Every argument made about preschool can be made about pre-preschool and pre-pre-preschool,” Chelgren said. “…What I am telling you at this point is that I believe that preschool is a good idea, but it is the idea and the decision-making of the parents into which group, into school and into which belief system they would like to take their children.”

Chelgren is the father of four children, and he said he sent all of them to preschool.

Listen to the discussion, which lasted just over 20 minutes: Senate