Lowering the state’s minimum preschool age from 5 years to 3 years would expand education opportunities and create better long-term outcomes for Nebraska students, supporters of the plan told lawmakers Tuesday.

Sen. Rick Kolowski’s plan (LR270A) to amend the state constitution this November could expand access to early childhood education to roughly 42,000 more children — if approved by Nebraska voters.

But opponents — and skeptical members of the Legislature’s Education Committee — said growing the number of potential students would place added burden on taxpayers, particularly in districts that don’t receive state aid, while also driving private day cares and education centers out of business.

LR270A was part of several measures introduced this session aiming to boost the state’s investment in early childhood, special and career education, as well as behavioral health and school nutrition programs in districts across the state.

If Kolowski’s constitutional amendment advances from the Education Committee, it would need the support of 30 senators to go onto this fall’s general election ballot.

Public education supporters called Kolowski’s plan “the single smartest investment in the state’s future,” capable of creating a better-educated workforce and expanded tax base for Nebraska’s future.

Jenni Benson, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said early childhood education has been shown to better prepare students to graduate high school, buy a house, and stay married, in addition to growing the state’s tax base through better employment opportunities.

Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director of Stand for Schools, called early childhood education “as close to a silver bullet” as lawmakers can find in making a good investment of taxpayer dollars.

Some committee members said the cost of the program would be too much for the state to absorb, particularly as it seeks to cut $173 million from its budget in the middle of the biennium.

Adding another 42,000 children to the 10,000 students already enrolled in preschool programs across the state could cost an estimated $420 million, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn said.

Linehan added she remains skeptical of studies linking the benefits of early childhood programs to future success, saying those children “started on third base,” born to affluent families who could afford the best education programs and college tuition.

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete called extending public school education to 3- and 4-year-olds “a new mandate for local schools” to raise property taxes if the state’s resources fall short.

“I question the practicality of it in today’s environment,” Ebke said.

She later asked Matthew Dunning of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, who spoke in support of the amendment Tuesday, why Nebraska school boards would be in favor of a proposal that could force them to raise their tax levy.

Dunning said the association views early childhood education as a way to prevent more Nebraskans from being sentenced to prison or applying for Medicaid.

“We recognize that funding could be a challenge, but we agree with some of the other testifiers that this is an investment and that there will be a return on that investment,” he said.

Opponents to the constitutional amendment said the proposal puts another mandate on taxpayers and threatens to close some businesses.

The Lincoln Independent Business Association supports public schools and the teachers who work there, President and CEO Coby Mach said, having backed bond issues to support explosive growth in the Lincoln Public Schools district in recent years.

But Mach said expanding early childhood education should come from the state’s coffers — not property taxes assessed by school districts.

“Lincoln taxpayers cannot afford any more unfunded mandates from the state,” he said. “If the Legislature wants to add 3- and 4-year-olds to our school system, then please make sure the state funds 100 percent of the teachers, the classroom supplies and the construction of the schools that would be needed.”

Gwen Easter, executive director of the Safe Haven Early Childhood Preschool Education Academy, said providing parents of 3- and 4-year-olds an option for free education would put her out of business and strip parents of options for their children.

She also accused public schools of encroaching more and more on private and faith-based daycare and education centers like hers, saying that while Kolowski’s proposal does not require children attend public school, future measures could make attendance compulsory.

Lisa May, who has run a day care in Kearney for 20 years, called the proposal “a slap in the face” to people like her, saying the plan tells in-home day cares they are teaching children the wrong way.

“Just because what we teach at an in-home isn’t necessarily always from the book — it’s about learning, it’s about experience, it’s about finding out on your own — (it) doesn’t make it wrong,” she said. “It’s just different.”

John Dockery said the plan is further proof schools want to replace parents, and Vic Stevenart, also of Omaha, said school districts shouldn’t be able to bring failed practices to young children.

With senators split on the measure, it’s unclear whether it will advance from committee.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said early childhood education should have been offered years ago, while Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said he was happy with the day care experience his children received.

Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, a former school teacher and day care provider, pointed out that under Kolowski’s proposal, parents could keep their children in their preferred day cares.

Chairman Mike Groene of North Platte said while parents would have options of where to send their children, they would be required to pay taxes to support it.

“It is not free and it is not optional to pay the taxes to fund it,” he said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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