Taya Morgan sometimes wakes at 3:30 a.m. to find her 3-year-old daughter dressed and asking, “Time to go to school?’’ Her 4-year-old son, Jamar, is too shy to show such enthusiasm — but he, too, is flourishing since enrolling at Children’s First preschool in north Minneapolis, with big strides in speaking and writing.

“I don’t think he’d know all his ABCs or be able to verbally count to 20,’’ Morgan said. “I don’t think he’d know all of those things without this preschool.”

Hopeful stories like those of the Morgan children explain why early childhood education has emerged, nationally and in Minnesota, as a prized strategy to close the nation’s achievement gap and prepare a new generation to succeed in school and life.

Gov. Mark Dayton is asking the Legislature for $44 million in the next two years to fund quality preschool for 10,000 needy children, and a coalition of lawmakers and business leaders is seeking $165 million for similar efforts. This month, President Obama is expected to submit a budget that dramatically increases the number of low-income children who can attend Head Start preschools.

Citing research that suggests huge economic returns, lawmakers and advocates have declared that quality preschool is “the most important investment we can make.”

But now that the issue is getting its turn in the spotlight, critics are questioning whether a good preschool alone is enough for a disadvantaged child to succeed long-term.

“Preschool education has become like organic food — a creed in which adherents place faith based on selective consideration of evidence and without weighing costs against benefits,” said Grover Whitehurst, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Brown Center on Education Policy. “The result may be the overselling of generic preschool education as a societal good.”

In this debate, Minnesota has emerged as a national testing ground since 2011, when it received three federal grants totaling $90 million to fund experiments in early education, with results that will be closely watched by federal officials and educators.

Concerns about the value of preschool were heightened by a 2012 study of Head Start, the federally funded program for low-income children, showing that students’ gains “faded out” by the time they reached third grade.

Such research is important, but needs to be placed in context with other large studies showing immense benefits of quality preschool, said Rob Grunewald, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Grunewald and fellow economist Art Rolnick raised the profile of the issue in Minnesota over the past decade with research indicating that quality preschool eventually made disadvantaged children more likely to get high-paying jobs and less likely to wind up on welfare or in jail.

The term “fade-out” is misleading, Grunewald argued, because the children who went through good preschools didn’t lose academic skills; other kids simply caught up over time.

“If we were able to get a larger population of kids prepared for school, there would be less effort placed toward remediation in school,” he said. “That would lift all boats.”

‘He belongs there’

In high-poverty sections of north Minneapolis, only 22 percent of children are considered “ready to learn” by kindergarten. In surrounding suburbs, the rate exceeds 80 percent. That’s one reason Minnesota has one of the largest racial achievement gaps in test scores and graduation rates.

The solution in north Minneapolis is an ambitious project called the Northside Achievement Zone, one of three early education projects in Minnesota launched with the federal grants.

For the Morgans, it was the opportunity for which they had long hoped.

Before she had kids, Morgan was sleeping in her car in Minneapolis, trying to find work and complete the necessary steps to have her husband, Courtney, immigrate from Jamaica. They eventually earned stable jobs here — she works in customer service for CenterPoint Energy and he washes dishes at Ikea — but they still struggle to afford safe housing. Stray bullets have ripped through homes they have rented in the past.

Squeezed for time between work and school, they relied on relatives, part-time child care, and evening work shifts to make sure someone was watching the children. But they realized their patchwork child care was hurting their son. Ever shy, Jamar wasn’t talking much, writing on paper, or reaching other key developmental milestones.

A friend recommended the Northside Achievement Zone, which provided grants for the Morgans to enroll their children at Children’s First.

There Jamar will receive occupational and speech therapy in addition to teaching that will prepare him for kindergarten. But already, he has made strides academically.

“It’s like he belongs there,” said his relieved mother.

Each week, the school sends home a red bag with a new book and instructions for the parents on reading with their son and asking questions about the material. The organization also provides the Morgans with parenting classes and a counselor. The idea is that the project will guide the family until the kids graduate from high school.

A key question is whether quality preschool — without these other forms of long-term support — is enough to make a difference for other needy families in Minnesota.

The centerpiece of efforts by Dayton and state lawmakers is to expand the state’s Parent Aware system, which grades child care facilities on a four-star scale, along with grants enabling disadvantaged children such as the Morgans to attend top-rated preschools.

The rating system and scholarships were tested, starting in 2005, with $6 million raised by Minnesota business leaders, and the approach is now expanding slowly statewide. The state won’t have data until 2016 to show whether children fare better in four-star preschools, but the rating system is based on extensive research and ranks child cares on teacher training, curriculum and the amount of time teachers interact with children and parents.

“We know, based on decades of research, that these are the right quality areas,’’ said Kathryn Tout, who helped create the rating system and is now monitoring it for Child Trends, a national advocacy group.

Total package

The confidence of advocates comes from a handful of key studies, including the Perry Preschool project, which tracked 123 low-income Michigan children for 40 years starting in the mid-1960s. Those who had attended a high quality preschool, researchers found, were more likely to own homes and earn high wages as adults, and were less likely to need special education or be jailed multiple times.

A similar study in Chicago by Arthur Reynolds — now a professor at the University of Minnesota — showed higher high school graduation rates for those who participated in quality preschool. Reynolds and colleagues estimated a $10 economic benefit for every $1 spent on preschool education for low-income children.

But some worry that such investments will be fruitless if the children’s gains aren’t sustained once they enter grade school. Preschool has been a critical part of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York — the model for the north Minneapolis zone — but its impact would be muted if children go home to neglectful parents or wind up in failing public schools, said Marty Lipp, a spokesman for the Harlem project.

“It’s not an inoculation,” he said. “It’s not a polio vaccine for life.”

The Morgans are thrilled with the gains their kids have made in preschool, but believe it is only part of the long-term solution. Parenting classes helped them learn better ways to communicate and discipline their kids, and they are spending more time reading with both children.

Morgan’s habit of screaming as discipline has been replaced with “if/then statements” that help her children become more responsible on their own.

“Now it’s: ‘If you put your toys away, then you’ll get chocolate milk,’ ” she said, “not ‘Put your toys away!’’

Northside Achievement Zone counselors speak of the Morgan children going to college some day, and the parents believe it. After parenting class, they received T-shirts indicating the expected date of college graduation for their children.

Those shirts have been folded and tucked away — saved for the days when their children have done exactly that.