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Dayton's expanded pre-K plan under fire from critics

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Working with pre-kindergarten students
Literacy tutor Lark Flynn-Lippert works with a group of pre-kindergarten students at St. Paul City School, Dec 14, 2012.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News 2012

After making free all-day kindergarten available around the state, Gov. Mark Dayton wants to spend more than $100 million on preschool programs for 4-year-olds in public schools.

  The governor's plan is backed by the state teachers' union, Education Minnesota. But some early education groups and experts are skeptical, which may not bode well for Dayton in the Legislature.

  Among the proposal's critics is Art Rolnick, the former research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who supported Dayton's previous efforts to expand learning for the youngest children.

  Rolnick, now a policy fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has made researching early childhood education a big part of his life's work. He argues that the earlier kids start a good education, the better off they will be in life.

  But he doesn't back the governor's universal preschool plan for 4-year-olds.

  "It's not cost effective," Rolnick said. "There's a much better way of doing this."

  Rolnick prefers an existing scholarship program that pays for needy children to attend Head Start, a child care facility or a public school program that meets quality standards. He said Dayton's plan is misguided because it would subsidize early education for all kids rather than target low-income children who need early education the most and are the least likely to have access to it.

  Dayton's budget preserves the scholarship program, but it doesn't increase funding for it. Instead, the state would cover half the cost for public schools that volunteer to expand or start a preschool program for 4-year-olds. Schools also would be eligible for additional state money for things like transportation. And parents wouldn't pay anything for their children to attend.

  The Department of Education plans to expand early learning for all children, and the administration is backed by the state's teachers' union. Department of Education Chief of Staff Charlene Briner said about 20 percent of the state's public schools already offer some sort of pre-K program, and the new funding will help them expand. Schools also can work with a private preschool.

Gov. Mark Dayton presents his budget proposal.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Jan. 27, 2015.
Jim Mone / AP

  Briner said Dayton is looking for a variety of ways to improve early childhood education.

  "If we're really going to get to the goal of serving 4-year-olds across the state by 2018, we can't do it with just the scholarship strategy alone," she said.

  Chad Dunkley, president of the Minnesota Child Care Association board, said he was surprised Dayton's budget didn't expand funding for scholarships because they have been successful. Dunkley, also president of New Horizon Academy child care centers, notes that there are more than 3,000 families waiting to get into the program.

  Meanwhile, the number of centers meeting quality standards for the program has skyrocketed, said Dunkley.

  "There is a financial impact on providers if they lose 4-year-olds; no question," Dunkley said. "That's not a reason for the state not to do it. But it's a factor because there will be less available care for zero- to 3-year-olds in communities if those providers lose all their 4-year-olds."

  School districts also are wary of Dayton's plan, but for a different reason.

  Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said he supports making universal preschool a priority, but he would like the state to contribute more.

  "I think there's a viable solution that would require school districts to pick up part of the tab, but certainly it could not be half of the tab," Croonquist said. "That would be too great of an expectation."

  Dayton's plan is getting mixed reviews at the Legislature, too.

  Democrats in the Minnesota Senate have proposed a potentially more expensive universal pre-K bill. But there's little support in the Republican-controlled House, where Education Finance Committee Chair Jenifer Loon has concerns about cost.

  "While we have a lot of need for economically disadvantaged families, for their young children to get this kind of early childhood education of a quality nature, we don't need to provide it at a cost to the taxpayers for every 4-year-old in Minnesota," said Loon, R-Eden Prairie.

  But when it comes to the scholarship program for families that can't afford good child care, Loon is on board. She's among a bipartisan group of legislators backing a bill to boost funding for the program.