Some advocates for early-childhood education need to learn when to declare victory. After years of eking out a few tens of millions of dollars to help a few thousand preschoolers, their response to Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to fund universal education for 4-year-old kids with over $340 million over the next two years is to say, “Whoa, that’s too much!”

Opponents of the governor’s proposal have settled on the odd orthodoxy that we should only help the most at-risk kids and it has to be done through scholarships. They have adopted this stance despite the research supporting the governor’s proposal and the values expressed in Minnesota’s Constitution.

Both sides say they support a mixed system. Scholarships could go to school-based offerings and to home- or center-based day care, whether for-profit or nonprofit. The governor’s proposal instructs districts to develop a mixed delivery system that could include center-based providers and Head Start.

But there is no doubt that there is an important difference in who would control the money. Under the governor’s plan, the funding would go to school districts and they would organize the early-education options.

The scholarship advocates assert that the evidence is all on their side. Not so. Although the scholarships offered in Minnesota have improved school readiness for many students, research on the Chicago Child Parent Education Centers (CPC) shows that school-based programs are also effective. University of Minnesota researchers, including Arthur Reynolds and Judy Temple, have evaluated the CPC approach over many years and have found that the program run by the Chicago public schools produced significant improvements in school readiness at an investment return of  7 to 1. The CPC program recently has been expanded to selected districts in Minnesota.

The governor’s proposal has been introduced in the Legislature in S.F. 811 and H.F. 844. The prekindergarten portion of those bills shows that the governor and the Minnesota Department of Education have been following the CPC research. Reynolds and his colleagues have found that a CPC approach should have six major components: collaborative leadership with a head teacher and family coordinators; effective learning experiences that include certified teachers and small class sizes; parent involvement; learning that is aligned from one year to the next; continuity and stability, and professional development for the team members.

The Dayton administration proposal specifically calls for at least four of these six components, including small class sizes, certified teachers, parent engagement, aligned curriculum and teacher professional development. Although the proposed law does not mention continuity, basing preK in schools will increase the likelihood that preK students can continue into kindergarten at the same school, creating a seamless transition for students as they move from preK to higher grades. If there is anything missing from the governor’s proposal, it is the failure to insist that parent engagement and aligned curriculum continue through at least grade 3.

Another part of the scholarship argument is that money targeted to the neediest students is the best policy and that universal preK would provide funds for students who don’t need extra preparation for school. The bull’s-eye is not small; half of our kids come to kindergarten not ready for school. It is unclear why we would try to help only a portion of the students who are unprepared.

In addition, if we support universal preK, we would not be segregating students based on income. Students from higher-income families would be engaged in early learning along with all of the students from more at-risk families. There is also evidence that early-childhood education for middle-class children produces economic returns of 2 to 1 or more.

John Adams answered this targeting question for us over 200 years ago. When he wrote the education section of the Massachusetts Constitution, he said that preserving our rights and liberties depended on spreading the benefits of education through the “various parts of the country” and among the “different orders of the people,” not just the poor or just the rich. Universal full-day preK will improve Minnesota’s ability to accomplish the goal Adams set.

The same goal appears in the Minnesota Constitution, where we state that it is the duty of the Legislature to “establish a general and uniform system of public schools.” Now that we have recognized that educating 4-year-olds is essential to success in education, there is no reason to limit our general and uniform system to kids older than 4.

That’s why every friend of 4-year-olds ought to declare victory and support the governor’s proposal.

 

Steve Kelley is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.