For too long, Minnesota’s 3- to 5-year-olds have not been high on the state funding priority list — even though most research proves the educational and societal value of strong early education.

Political differences over whether government should be involved at all in educating young learners have historically contributed to the foot-dragging. But in recent years, local business and civic leaders formed the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation to support and expand quality preschool. Their efforts, aided by ­Minnesota economist Art Rolnick’s data, have helped turn the tide. His studies show that for every dollar invested in preschool, society receives a $17 return.

With that kind of return in mind, growing numbers of conservative Republicans, including governors in Alabama and Michigan, are recommending multimillion-dollar increases in preschool funding.

Compared with other states, ­Minnesota is behind the curve in supporting early education despite its larger-than-average achievement gap between more-affluent white students and lower-income students of color.

But welcome momentum is building in St. Paul and Washington, and this could be a banner year for ­Minnesota’s youngest learners. Under proposals at both the state and federal levels, early learning could receive a much-needed funding boost that would give thousands more youngsters a shot to be better lifelong students and successful adults.

Under Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget plan and the supporting House education bill, preschool and kindergarten would receive an additional $84 million annually. That would fund the expansion of all-day kindergarten, preschool and scholarships for quality child care for the state’s neediest students.

Dayton’s plan falls short of what advocates say is needed to reach every preschool and kindergarten child. Still, it deserves support.

And more help could be on the way from the federal government. In his State of the Union address, President Obama said he wanted the Department of Education to work with states so that quality preschool is available to all children. The administration envisions helping fund preschool for 4-year-olds whose family incomes are 200 percent or more below the federal poverty level, a somewhat more generous income threshold than the current Head Start program.

The president outlined a broad proposal that would let states set up their own prekindergarten systems and receive federal funds to help support them. And this week a federal commission recommended making preschool programs available to every low-income student within 10 years, further fleshing out the direction of the administration’s plan.

The welcome push to expand early education opportunities comes against a backdrop of possible huge cuts to existing federal programs. If the White House and Congress allow $85 billion in automatic sequestration cuts to go into effect March 1, an estimated 70,000 children would be kicked out of the current Head Start programs and about 10,000 teachers and aides would lose their jobs.

Even if those severe across-the-board cuts are avoided, questions remain about where both local and federal dollars will come from to support expanded early ed. The answer will be clearer when Obama releases his budget next month and after ­Minnesota’s budget forecast next week.

There’s plenty of evidence that early education deserves public and private-sector support. The data show that it works — both for the individual students and for communities — when well-educated students become productive adults. For Minnesota to narrow its significant learning disparities, more of the state’s littlest learners need access to effective preschool and kindergarten programs.


An editorial of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).