Dayton takes his plan for universal pre-k to school

Working alongside the governor
Four-year-old Covado Bernard introduced Gov. Mark Dayton to work he is doing on an iPad at Newport Elementary School in Newport, Minn., March 20, 2015. Preschool teacher Brittany Vasecka is also pictured.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

Aiming to boost support for his proposal to ensure that every child in Minnesota receive an early start in school, Gov. Mark Dayton began his day Friday where he thinks education should begin.

At Newport Elementary School, Dayton watched as preschool teacher Brittany Vasecka began her class with a book and the letter of the week.

"So where's the letter 'S' in the classroom here?" Vasecka asked the four- and five-year olds.

As reporters, legislators and others looked on, the governor watched as one child donned "the letter detective vest" and looked for every "S" in the room.

"Very good," Dayton told the student. "You're a good letter detective."

For Dayton, the school activity illustrated an important point: Access to a quality preschool can provide children with important skills that will help them do well in school.

He used the moment to try to ramp up support for a proposal to spend nearly a fifth of Minnesota's $1.9 billion projected budget surplus to ensure that all of the state's four-year-olds attend an all-day preschool.

At Newport Elementary, which offers half-day preschool, teachers notice a big difference between the classroom performance of students who went to preschool and those who didn't.

Vasecka said the children who attended preschool have an advantage.

"It almost seems unfair that students are entering kindergarten on an uneven playing field," she said. "It really needs to be that all four-year-olds are given equal opportunity in education so that they're better prepared."

Dayton agrees. He wants to spend $343 million of the budget surplus on universal all-day preschool. That would help reduce the gap between top performing and lower performing students, he said.

Rug time with preschool class
Gov. Mark Dayton joined preschoolers at Newport Elementary School in Newport, Minn., for rug time, Friday, March 20, 2015.
Tom Scheck | MPR News

At Newport Elementary, the governor noted that only a third of kindergartners in South Washington County Schools went to preschool.

"Here's one school district," Dayton said. "Why should 700 kids be disadvantaged coming into kindergarten without the benefit of pre-K? Our role as a state government is to serve everybody."

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, Feb. 26, 2015 in St. Paul.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

But not everyone agrees with the governor's approach. State Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said she's not sure spending $343 million on preschool is the best use of taxpayer dollars.

"We have a whole lot of children already in the K-12 system who are in that achievement gap who need assistance," Loon said. "For every dollar that I'm spending on a four-year-old that doesn't need that special preschool experience, all day at school, that's a dollar that I can't spend to help a struggling sixth grader."

Loon, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee, commends Dayton for focusing on early childhood education but thinks the money could be better targeted. She's getting plenty of support from groups pushing for preschool scholarships for disadvantaged children.

Among them is Ericca Maas, executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness. She said Dayton should focus on targeting funds to low income children.

"We know that Minnesota has some of the widest achievement gaps in the country," Maas said. "And to really address those gaps, we need to focus first and fully on children from low-income families."

State Sen. Chuck Wiger, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said he's open to supporting at least part of Dayton's initiative. But Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, did not commit to fully funding it.

"Everything is in play right now," he said. "A high priority will be for universal pre-k at four. Whether it can be fully laid out and fully funded as the governor has proposed would be ambitious but it's a very high priority."

Wiger said Senate Democrats also have other priorities including more money for the basic per pupil funding and facility improvements.

Dayton acknowledged that lawmakers have different priorities. But the governor said he would push hard for his initiative, which would make Minnesota the 10th state in the nation to have universal pre-k.

But the governor has some work to do.

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said Dayton's plan is a worthy goal but school district officials are worried they don't have the space for the expansion. Croonquist also said schools need more money or they could be forced to lay off teachers.

"We don't want to be in a situation where we're adding pre-k but at the same time laying off K-12 teachers and expanding classrooms because we don't have funding for our K-12 program that at least meets inflation," he said.

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