Republicans want preschool scholarships, not universal pre-K

Brushing teeth
Preschoolers Avary Coleman, left, and Mariah Harper brush their teeth after a meal at Head Start in St. Paul, Feb. 27, 2013.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2013

On a day when Gov. Mark Dayton returned to a classroom to push his plan for universal preschool for four-year-olds, Republicans in the Minnesota House released an education bill that takes a much different approach.

Ignoring Dayton's $348 million funding proposal for universal pre-K, the GOP bill would boost spending on scholarships by $30 million to allow parents to avoid school-based programs by using state money to send their children to other preschools or church schools.

Some child development experts say state-funded scholarships for disadvantaged families are the best place to put taxpayer dollars. Dayton contends that scholarships and universal preschool are complimentary, and his budget keeps the scholarship funding at its current level.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have proposed a bill that does provide money for universal pre-K, but less than one fifth of what Dayton requested.

To highlight one of his top budget priorities, Dayton visited Expo Elementary in St. Paul Tuesday and sat on the floor with teacher Emily Campbell and her morning class of 20 4-year-olds. There are 500 children on the waiting list for pre-K in St. Paul.

Gov. Mark Dayton talked to a preschool class.
Gov. Mark Dayton and education commissioner Brenda Cassellius talked to a preschool class at Expo Elementary School in St. Paul on April 14, 2015.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Dayton originally proposed $110 million to partially fund preschool for every four-year-old in the state. But when the budget surplus grew to nearly $1.9 billion, he increased his plan by $238 million. During the school visit, he said the surplus offers a rare opportunity to invest in young children.

"We're going to work on the scholarship side for especially ages 0 through 3, and then work on pre-K all across the state," Dayton said. "I think once we get that going, we'll have accomplished more to resolve the achievement gap — which we all agree is unacceptable — than anything else that we can be doing."

But House Republicans are emphasizing scholarships in their education finance bill. Besides the additional $30 million increase, they also propose a $10 million increase in school readiness funding, which school districts use to operate preschool programs. There is no money in the House plan for universal pre-K.

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said the Republican bill targets limited resources to the neediest students. She said the preschool scholarships also give parents choices.

"Parents may choose or prefer to go to a school-based program, or they may choose to go the preschool at their church or at the daycare down the street," said Loon, R-Eden Prairie. "So, we want to make sure that parents have those options and they're not given one choice for their four-year-old's education."

Loon said the governor means well, but his plan to create a new grade level for four-year-olds in every school district is too expensive.

"The governor's proposal, as I understand it, provides pupil money on a pupil count for four-year-olds," she said. "But he doesn't provide any additional money for facilities. So for schools that don't have available space in their buildings for these four-year-old classrooms, where is that money coming from?"

Senate Democrats are staking out the middle ground on preschool funding. Their education finance bill provides $65 million toward the governor's plan. State Sen. Chuck Wiger, chairman of the Senate Education committee, said the bill allows for a smaller and slower approach to optional preschool programs.

"We have flexibility built in for school districts to decide what might work," said Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. "It's not a one-size-fits-all program. But the bottom line would be high quality opportunities for four-year-olds on a voluntary basis to help all students eventually be ready for K."

Wiger said the Senate education bill also includes a $5 million increase for preschool scholarships.

Committee hearings and votes are scheduled this week for both the House and Senate education bills.

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