JEFFERSON CITY — 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 preschool help appeals to blue-collar voters who are important to broadening the party's base of support.
State funding to help families afford preschool 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 2013-14 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.
Some state preschool programs are reaching into the middle-class. Michigan, for example, provides free preschool to a family of four earning up to about $59,000.
Preschool is popular "with a bunch of different economic groups" in urban, suburban and rural areas alike, said Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant for the education commission. "So I think that's the reason why we've seen Republican governors and legislatures embrace it as much as we've seen the Democratic ones embrace it."
Fewer than half of the nation's 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds attend publicly funded preschool programs, according to one report.
The case for preschool is increasingly being made on economic terms. James Heckman, a Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics at the University of Chicago, has calculated that the money spent on quality preschool programs for disadvantaged children generates an annual 7 percent to 10 percent return by boosting their eventual wages and reducing their likelihood of winding up in prison or costly social welfare programs.
At the same time, Republicans, who control the legislatures in more than two dozen states, continue to rein in other social programs. Most are refusing to expand Medicaid, the government health insurance program, as part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who faces re-election his year, has asked legislators to pour an additional $65 million into preschool programs for the 2014-15 budget. That comes despite significant cuts to public universities during his tenure and is aimed at reducing a backlog of low-income families seeking state preschool aid.
"We're going to make it a no-wait state for early childhood education," Snyder said in his recent State of the State address.
South Carolina's surge in preschool funding extended state-paid, full-day classes for 4-year-olds to more than a dozen additional impoverished school districts. The money is expected to boost the number of children enrolled by greater than 50 percent.
In reliably Republican Indiana, which currently has no state preschool program, Pence recently rolled out a preschool "voucher" initiative even while announcing cuts to higher education.
Mississippi is funding preschool for the first time by setting aside $3 million for competitive grants this year. Legislative leaders hope to double funding to $6 million in the next budget.
One of the primary sponsors in Mississippi is state Sen. Brice Wiggins, a freshman Republican from Pascagoula who was a youth court prosecutor.
"I got tired of seeing children going to prison for crimes, and the big thing was their lack of education," he said.
Mississippi's efforts pale in comparison with some of the initiatives being proposed by Democrats. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to create a citywide all-day preschool program funded by an income tax surcharge on the wealthy. And all three of Maryland's leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates are pushing to expand preschool, including one who wants to fund it by legalizing and taxing marijuana.
Yet Republican states such as Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia rank among the nation's leaders in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state preschool programs.
"At the state level, this is not a cut and dry partisan issue — it's governors really kind of looking at the data and investing the funds where they know it's going to do the most," said Megan Carolan, policy research coordinator at The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.