The contentious battle over how best to educate Minnesota’s youngest learners is shifting in a new direction after Gov. Mark Dayton for now abandoned his bid for universal state-paid preschool.
A bipartisan group of legislators is pressing for a cheaper option of expanding the state’s early-learning scholarship program.
State Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, wants to expand the age of children served by scholarships beyond 3- and 4-year-olds to kids as young as birth. The program also would prioritize children who are in foster care or child protection, or who have teen or homeless parents. The overall aim is to reduce disparities in kindergarten readiness for children of color or those in low-income families.
“It’s a more sensible and pragmatic approach to focus on scholarships vs. trying to eat at the whole pie, which is hard to do, especially since our economy is showing signs of slowing down,” Franzen said.
Group members aren’t saying how much they are seeking this year, but they say that fully funding their initiative eventually would cost $500 million.
“We’re going to have questions about the money,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, sponsor of the House counterpart to Franzen’s bill. “Let’s set those aside, and let’s build support. The more support we get, the higher that number is going to get at the end of the day.”
Dayton backed away from his preschool proposal Tuesday after a gloomy economic outlook prompted budget officials to reduce the projected surplus to about $900 million, down from more than $1.2 billion.
Now the governor is asking for $25 million to help 3,700 preschoolers in areas with high poverty rates and where high-quality child care programs are lacking. It’s far cheaper than his initial proposal for $350 million.
Legislators seeking more early-education funding will be competing against proposals for tax cuts, transportation funding and the authorization to borrow to finance statewide capital improvements.
MinneMinds — a coalition of Minnesota foundations, nonprofits, cities and education institutions — is pressing for more scholarship funding to reach more children, as well as paying for home visits and a parent rating system for child care programs.
Frank Forsberg, chairman of MinneMinds, said he is encouraged by the debate.
“We’ve moved it from a discussion of whether or not early-childhood education is valuable or important to a discussion about what’s the best way to deliver this important service,” Forsberg said.
Ramsey County employee Sinying Lee, 30, said existing scholarships helped her afford the cost of child care for her three children. Her 5-year-old has started kindergarten, and her younger two, ages 4 and 3, are thriving in their St. Paul child care center, gaining confidence and language skills.
“My baby is so confident, and always ready to compete with the older kids,” Lee said. “She speaks just as much as the older two. They’re always looking forward to child care. When I pick them up, they’re saying goodbye to all their friends. They love school.”
Last year, the Legislature provided a record amount of funding for early-learning scholarships and for existing preschool programs offered by school districts. Roughly $100 million in scholarship funding is serving about 6,100 students, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. By fiscal year 2017, that figure is expected to grow to nearly 8,000.
Still, that’s only a fraction of the need, Forsberg said. His group estimates about 20,000 students could qualify for a scholarship, requiring nearly $200 million in new money.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said the teachers union will continue to press for universal preschool this year. A report by the union’s think thank, the Educator Policy Innovation Center, argued that school-based prekindergarten programs offer families continuity as their children progress from pre-K to other grades.
Specht said scholarships serve only a fraction of the 4-year-olds who could benefit from early-learning programs.
“We realize that there are limited dollars … but we want to keep the conversation going,” Specht said.
Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said that regardless of the reduced budget surplus, she will on Thursday introduce a proposal for universal preschool. “There’s still enough available funds to make a good strong start for our young kids,” Murphy said.
In last week’s State of the State address, Dayton signaled that early education remains a top priority, saying, “Sixty-thousand Minnesota 4-year-olds need Minnesota’s grown-ups to go beyond their big self-interests and place those little interests first.”
Lee said legislators should consider families like hers. She said that with additional funding, scholarships “could reach more people it’s intended for. I think that could be improved.”