The proposed early childhood allowance would provide a minimum of $200 a year to every Minnesota child enrolled in a high-quality pre-school program. Higher amounts, up to $3,800, would go to families based on a sliding scale pegged to income. Parents could select any public or private program, as long as it met state quality standards that are yet to be established.
Sen. Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, describes the bill as a "groundbreaking approach" to getting kids ready for school and narrowing the achievement gap.
"We want outcomes here," she said. "This isn't about doing something nice or having kids someplace. So we believe we can do it within that amount of money, and as you can see we're focusing on families that have less resources. But we also think it's important that all Minnesota families get a chance to participate in some way."
Clark says the early childhood education bill, with its new estimated cost of $400 million over two years, is a funding priority for the Senate. But the exact funding amount won't be determined until DFL leaders assemble their overall spending plan later in the session. They're also scaling back funding expectations for all-day, every-day kindergarten, which Clark says might be a phased-in initiative. All-day kindergarten has an estimated two-year price tag of $320 million.
Senate Republicans are showing support for Clark's bill. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, says he likes the concept of giving parents money and a choice of programs. But Hann says he has a few concerns.
"I think where there are still questions have to center around, obviously, how much money, how big the scholarships are, how many people qualify? I think some of us are a little concerned about the $200 for everybody, regardless of need. I'm not sure I go along with that," he said. A spokesman for Gov. Pawlenty is also questioning the price of the DFL plan. The governor's budget proposal includes comparatively modest $29 million in new spending for early childhood education. Brian McClung says the governor wants to target pre-kindergarten scholarships to the state's neediest children.
"Kids in their elementary school years who come from stronger backgrounds or better communities or from places that aren't disadvantaged, those kids aren't really having an achievement problem in their early years. So we think the kids who need the most help are where the focus should be," he said.
McClung says he thinks DFL leaders might have to lower the price of their proposal as they try to balance other budget priorities.