Demand for state-financed preschool continues to outstrip funding

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

Updated: 5:53 p.m. | Posted: 11:26 a.m.

While 74 school districts and charter schools will participate in an initial round of state-funded preschool, more than 100 districts were turned down, Minnesota education officials announced Monday.

That gulf between demand and available funding prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to renew his call for more money for what has been one of his top priorities.

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"The fact that more than half could not be funded to me is the impetus for why the program needs to be expanded in the next biennium," Dayton said at a news conference announcing which districts would share in the $25 million preschool appropriation.

The Osseo Area School District got the biggest chunk of the state preschool money, at $1.5 million. The district says it will add 230 preschool spots with the money.

Osseo preschool teacher Etta Rassier says it will allow 4-year-olds in the district's program this fall to learn "the oral language skills, the early literacy skills, the math skills, and those all-important social emotional goals that really get our learners ready to learn."

The state gave priority to requests based on schools' poverty levels and the availability of high-quality early education programs nearby. Minneapolis Public Schools got the next-highest amount of money with $1.3 million.

The new money is enough to cover just over 3,000 four-year-olds statewide. But even though it's relatively small, the program represents a fundamental shift for Minnesota. For the first time, it makes preschool part of the state's public school system — with funding flowing from the state to school districts.

Classes paid for with the new funding have to operate for at least 350 hours a year. And teachers have to get paid in line with the district's K-12 salaries. That will be a big jump for the average Minnesota preschool teacher, who last year made about $20,000 a year less than the average elementary teacher.

Minnesota's other early learning options are less uniform. There are "school readiness" programs, which vary widely in length and content. And there's a scholarship program that gives low-income parents money to use at public or private programs.

Preschool run through public schools should especially benefit English language learners and special education students, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

"The school system is the only educational system we have that can provide the supports that preschool programs need to be high-quality," he said.

Though the preschool money goes directly to districts, those districts have the option of partnering with private preschool providers to provide classes, as long as they meet the state's standards.

"You get the benefits of competition and choice, at the same time as you take advantage of what we've already built in our public schools," said Barnett.

But some critics of the new funding worry private providers will get left out. Others worry the limited dollars won't make it to the children who need it most. During recent legislative sessions, much of the debate pitted Dayton and his call for universal preschool funding against calls for scholarships targeted specifically at low-income families.

"Those programs may fill up, for instance, with children that might be middle income, and so there may be others that are low-income that won't have the opportunity to actually get into the classroom," said Dianne Haulcy of the nonprofit Think Small, which advocated for the targeted scholarships.

At Monday's news conference, Dayton countered that all children need access to early learning opportunities. Dayton says he hopes to get preschool for every Minnesota 4-year-old before his term ends in 2018, a goal the state says will take about $300 million a year.

House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, says she's going to wait and see on that request.

"It's really premature to say," she said. "This is a pilot project, so we're going to want to take some time to study it, see how the program's doing."

Loon says she wants to compare results to the impact of early learning scholarships and the state's school readiness program.