Preschool programs get boost through increased state funds

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Republican governors and lawmakers who now control a majority of state capitols have been pushing aggressively to cut spending and shrink government – with one glaring exception.

Many are pumping new money into preschool programs at a rate equaling or even exceeding the Democratic-dominated capitols stereotypically cast as big spenders.

The push reflects a conclusion among conservatives that one part of the social safety net deserves more government help, not less. If it continues, the move could be a step toward creation of a new educational entitlement at a time when both parties are concerned about the costs of the current programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

For the GOP, the spending could have political consequences. Research indicates that pre-school help appeals to blue-collar voters who are important to broadening the party’s base of support.

State funding to help families afford pre-school plunged a couple of years ago because of the lingering effects of the recession. But it has surged back and is now $400 million higher than before the economic downturn, according to a recent report by the Education Commission for the States.

In the 2013-2014 school year, funding rose in 30 of the 40 states that provide preschool aid. The three largest increases occurred in Republican dominated states – a $65 million spending hike in Michigan, nearly $48 million in Texas and about $27 million in South Carolina.

Republicans are putting their own twist on the preschool programs. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has framed it as a “voucher” for lower-income parents to send their children to the public, private or parochial preschool of their choice. Mississippi has launched its first state-funded preschool program through competitive grants. And Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature, which cut preschool grants while reforming eligibility a couple of years ago, now will be considering whether to triple funding.