U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Minnesota’s investment in early education on Tuesday, but said there’s still a ways to go to make sure all students get it — not just in Minnesota but across the country.

“I think it’s the best investment we can make,” he said during a visit to Kennedy High School in Bloomington.

Minnesota was one of a few states Duncan chose to visit to tout President Obama’s $75 billion proposal to expand preschool programming over 10 years, as well as additional funding for high-quality child care for infants and toddlers and for parent and support. In the preschool portion of that plan, Minnesota would get $38 million in the first year for more than 4,700 4-year-olds to attend preschool.

That comes after state legislators this year approved $40 million for early learning scholarships for more than 8,000 kids to attend child care and preschool — “pretty extraordinary” steps, Duncan said Tuesday at a town hall attended by more than 250 teachers, parents and policymakers.

But there are still thousands of children on waiting lists, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said, adding that the federal aid from the “Preschool for All” program, which the state would match with $3.9 million, would double the number of kids in early education.

“There’s still such a need,” Cassellius said. The proposal, though, faces a divided Legislature.

U.S. Rep. John Kline, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has been an outspoken critic of Obama’s plan, which would be funded through a tobacco tax of 94 cents per cigarette pack.

Said Duncan: “We’re open to other ideas” to fund it, but “I think it’s so important Washington pay attention to the real world,” he said, citing the bipartisan support received by Gov. Mark Dayton’s early-education plan.

Community leaders who joined Duncan on the panel said boosting preschool would help everything from private business to the military by making the workforce more educated and globally competitive.

“It’s the best economic investment the public can make,” said Art Rolnick, a former Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis economist.

A 2011 University of Minnesota study found that the average of $9,000 spent on 18 months of preschool returns to society at least $90,000 in benefits per child from increased earnings, tax revenue, reduced criminal behavior, mental health costs and other measures.

“You won’t find a better investment,” Rolnick said.

The panel included Duncan, Dayton, Rolnick, Cassellius, Minnesota National Guard Maj. General Richard Nash, state Council of Churches Executive Director Peg Chemberlin and Target Foundation President Laysha Ward.

A small demonstration

The event also sparked a small protest. Minneapolis teacher Caroline Hooper, who joined four other teachers demonstrating against “the corporatization of education,” said the panel should have had more educators.

“I think it’s funny today to have a panel about education that includes the military, corporations and churches,” she said.

But retired Robbinsdale teacher David Cade said he was glad to see a multi-sector effort to boost early education, preventing kids from getting to high school so far behind.

“Rather than remediate,” he said, “it would be nice for kids to arrive … ready.”