In Iowa, Republican Support for ECE Gains Momentum

ECE advocates throughout the state are already thinking ahead to the next session that’s slated to begin in January
Blog Post
The Iowa state Capitol building in front of a cloudy, blue sky
May 22, 2024

With a major federal overhaul of early care and education (ECE) on the scale of the Build Back Better Act appearing unlikely in the short term, individual states are increasingly taking the initiative to expand access and improve quality. Traditionally blue states such as California, Minnesota, Vermont have all recently taken significant steps to increase ECE funding in an effort to boost supply, increase wages for the workforce, and expand eligibility to free or low-cost ECE.

But these state efforts are not just limited to traditionally liberal states. In fact, Republican lawmakers in more conservative states are also taking action to increase ECE investments. Earlier this year, Indiana Republican State Senator Danny Carroll unveiled the Horizons Act, a bill that would provide up to $300 million in new funding for ECE throughout the state. Just next door in Ohio, Republicans have introduced legislation designed to significantly reduce child care costs for families by establishing a “tri-share” program in which participating employers and the state each pay for a portion of family’s child care expenses.

A similar trend is taking place in the state of Iowa, one of 23 states across the country where Republicans control both the governorship and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Currently, 64 percent of the state’s four-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded pre-K program. There is no income requirement to enroll in the program and 99 percent of counties offer it, but state funding is only provided for 10 hours per week. Some districts, such as Cedar Rapids Community School District, operate full-day pre-K programs with the help of short-term pandemic relief funds.

A bill introduced by Republicans in both chambers of the state legislature seeks to expand pre-K access for families with lower incomes. Specifically, the bill would provide state funding to support 20 hours of pre-K each week for children whose parents have a yearly income at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The bill cleared the Senate Education Committee, but failed to garner a vote in the full Senate prior to the recent close of the legislative session.

Despite this setback, Sheila Hansen, government relations manager at Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, sees the most recent legislative session as a big step forward. “For Republicans to introduce a bill like this is a victory because they see the need for preschool. They’re hearing from advocates and parents that this is what they want,” says Hansen. She attributes Republican interest in pre-K expansion to a few different factors: “They're seeing the workforce issue behind it. This particular pre-K bill is focused on low-income children, and they understand the research behind low-income children going to preschool and the return on investment.”

While the pre-K bill fell short this year, advocates had more luck on the child care front. Last year was a bit of a mixed bag for the state’s child care advocates: Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill that increased income limits for the state child care assistance program from 145 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 160 percent FPL. At the same time, however, the bill increased the number of hours a child’s parent or guardian must work or participate in an education or training program to qualify for assistance. And, in 2022, in response to the statewide shortage of providers, the legislature approved a controversial bill that raised child-to-staff ratios for child care centers and allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to work in centers without supervision while caring for school-aged children. This year, however, a bill that would have allowed minors to care for children of any age without an adult in the room was defeated after advocates voiced safety concerns.

One child care bill that was approved this session and recently signed into law was a Republican-backed bill that increases half-day reimbursement rates for providers participating in the state child care assistance program. The bill also extends a statewide pilot program that allows full-time child care workers to be eligible for the child care assistance program even if they are above the program’s income threshold. A number of states have recently enacted similar programs in efforts to increase workforce retention and recruitment.

Many Republican legislators were vocal in their support for the bill. In advocating for the legislation, Republican Representative Ann Meyer pointed to early data illustrating the positive initial impact of the pilot. According to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, a survey found that 88 percent of respondents said the program encouraged them to stay in the child care field and 37 percent said they would be somewhat or very likely to leave the field if the program was no longer available. Due to the legislation, the pilot is now not due to expire until the end of June 2025.

ECE advocates throughout the state are already thinking ahead to the next session that’s slated to begin in January. With elections only six months away, organizations are focused on educating both constituents and future lawmakers on the importance of ECE. Hansen points to the importance of forming relationships with candidates on both sides of the aisle to help ensure future legislative success: “Just making sure that they know that we're available and if they win then we have that relationship ready to go. And then we can continue on and say ‘Remember when we talked about early childhood? We would love for you to continue focusing on that now that you're here.’”