Neb. panel will seek more early education funding


Associated Press

Posted on December 29, 2013 at 4:04 PM

Updated Sunday, Dec 29 at 4:04 PM

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A panel of Nebraska lawmakers is planning a new push to increase early childhood education funding after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The recommendation comes from the Legislature's Education Committee, which held a series of hearings throughout the state in October.

Sen. Kate Sullivan, the committee's chairwoman, said the early childhood education programs have been shown to help the social and academic development of children from low-income households.

"If you can get them in those early stages, you have pretty high return on the investment," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said lawmakers had not yet settled on a specific amount.

Lawmakers already approved $3.6 million for early childhood grants in April for the state's two-year budget. The grants support school programs for children who are at least three years old but have not yet entered kindergarten. An additional $1 million was approved for schools that serve at-risk children from birth to age 3.

The programs are widely supported by school administrators, but the services are offered in a patchwork throughout the state, said Jon Habben of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.

Habben said the programs he saw during his time as a superintendent in Falls City focused on developing children's cognitive abilities and social skills before kindergarten.

"We saw a big different in terms of kids being ready to learn," Habben said. "Generally speaking, people don't see early childhood education as a luxury. They see it as something that's necessary."

State funding for schools has led to conflicts in recent years between many smaller and larger school districts. Nebraska's K-12 state aid formula seeks to fill the gap between school district needs and what each can generate locally through property taxes.

Many districts have increasingly relied on property taxes since the recession, but high farmland values and stagnant growth in urban areas caused the formula to shift more state aid to larger schools. In response, the Education Committee held the October hearings throughout the state to gather input from teachers, parents and other stakeholders.

School funding is the single largest item in the state budget, but the early childhood education grants are separate.