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A Leaner Preschool Program in Iowa?

Newly elected Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa has put forward a scaled-down spending plan that would replace his predecessor's statewide preschool program with a cheaper alternative.

The Republican wants to slash spending on the state's program for young children from $71 million to $43 million for next year and instead create a more targeted model, based on family need.

The move comes as no surprise. The Republican governor, who returned to the governor's office this month after serving four terms during the 1980s and 1990s, campaigned on the argument that his state couldn't afford the preschool program launched by his predecessor, Democrat Chet Culver. He's pledged to chop down state spending, and he wants to move to a model that offers preschool to families that can't afford to pay for it.

In his recent budget address, Branstad said he recognizes the value of educating young children, saying his goal is to ensure that "every Iowa child has access to quality preschool." Research shows that providing education to young children has a positive impact on children and families in need, the governor said—but he envisions a more limited role for state government in providing those services.

The goal is to "give parents flexibility to choose the preschool environment that best meets their needs," Branstad said. "But we cannot do this alone. All across this state, parents, private donors and caring organizations have for years partnered with preschool providers to ensure access. I am happy to have the state of Iowa join them—as a partner, not as the sole provider."

Whether Branstad's proposal will make it into law is unclear. Iowa's state Senate is majority Democrat, while the House is controlled by the GOP. The House recently approved a measure, the "Taxpayers First Act," to defund the state preschool program and replace it with an alternative model for serving children and families, a move that drew praise from the governor.

As we reported in this year's Quality Counts report, a lot of preschool advocates are worried that state officials will put their programs on the chopping block in the months and years ahead.

I'll put the question for all the advocates and budget hawks out there: Do states need to rethink how they spend money on preschool during a bleak budget period? Or should they be digging in to protect those programs?

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