The state Legislature is near the end of this year’s short session, which is supposed to be devoted to bonding and a tax conformity bill. But controversial spending and policy issues are dominating the session, with just weeks to go. Pre-K early education spending is one of them.
As in past years, Gov. Mark Dayton is lobbying hard to make permanent a School Readiness Plus/Voluntary Pre-K hybrid, passed with one-time funding of $56.6 million last year. This would be in addition to the regular pre-K biennial costs of $46 million, plus another $69 million for Early Learning Scholarships, some of which go to public schools.
To avoid just throwing more money at pre-K programs, which were originally targeted for “at-risk” children, the Legislature asked the legislative auditor to review Minnesota’s early childhood programs. The recently released report concluded that Minnesota’s key early childhood programs are complex and fragmented and that their statewide effectiveness is unknown.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs the Education Finance Committee in the House, says she will review pre-K next year when there is more time and the budget is under review.
Just two years ago, the Legislature went into a special session over the issue of pre-K education, with the governor demanding that Minnesota add pre-K for every child in the state. Dayton says pre-K will close the achievement gap. But since that focus might limit him to at-risk kids, he then cites research on the brain development of babies from “zero to age 5,” arguing that all kids deserve “early learning opportunities.” Sometimes he pitches that they will become better workers someday.
But wait, in case you were not sold on brain science or workforce development, there’s more, as the pitchmen say.
Dayton’s commissioner of education is out selling the idea to parents around the state this way: “Beyond the benefits for children,” Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote in a commentary for the St. Cloud Times, “free prekindergarten can make a big difference for family budgets. Quality childcare can cost families an average of more than $10,000 per year for each child.”
The shameless “free child care” pitch will be attractive to many people given our fast-paced lives, focus on career and the rising cost of child care. (Note: child care should not be cheap; you are replacing the care of a parent.) Look how quickly Minnesota has shifted to all-day kindergarten.
Public schools already have a big and crowded mission, and they are not designed for small children. Do we really want to ask taxpayers to fund “free child care,” ironically making it harder for parents to stay at home with small children?
Dayton does not talk about what universal pre-K would cost, but a back-of-the-envelope calculation is that universal all-day pre-K could cost about $684 million a year (total current K-12 spending, less current pre-K costs, divided by 13 grades). That does not include costs to make buses and schools safe for very small children or to add classrooms to overcrowded schools.
Short bonding sessions leave little time to hold hearings and make good decisions about the budget and permanent state spending. But Dayton is a tough negotiator; and with the entire House up for re-election, some lawmakers may be tempted to cut another deal.
Here is why they should stand up to Dayton: Education spending goes up each year but it never seems to be enough. Minnesota spends about $9 billion every year on K-12 and pre-K (that’s 41 percent of state tax dollars; we spend even more when you add our federal school aid).
According to Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, education finance chair in the Senate, per-pupil funding has increased significantly in recent years from $11,180 in 2015 to $12,617 in 2019 (projected). In addition to demanding additional pre-K funding, the governor wants $138 million in emergency aid for districts short on funds. Teachers are looking for higher pay and their pensions are wildly underfunded, so school aid is going up. Then there is new funding for school safety and mental health programs following the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Bottom line? Dayton’s “free” child care means less money for K-12 students and forces at-risk children — who do benefit greatly from early intervention — to compete for proper funding and other resources.
But this is not just about costs. It is about our children and our culture. Is this what we really want? Why are we in such a hurry for our children to grow up?
Even if adult life has changed, children and their brains have not: Children can learn all they need to know to get ready for kindergarten from their parents and other care providers. Except for at-risk kids, there is no evidence that nursery-aged children are at a disadvantage if they skip formal schooling at the tender age of 4.
In fact, as an expert mom, I would offer that children will do even better down the line if they are allowed to be really good at just being 4.
Kim Crockett is vice president and senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.