Education advocates will be intensifying their push for more state-paid preschool during the upcoming legislative session, the latest sign that momentum around early education in the state is building.

MinneMinds, a group of Minnesota foundations, nonprofits, cities and education institutions, is gearing up to ask legislators for $125 million to $150 million to fund early learning scholarships for low-income children.

Advocates are trying to make wider use of scholarships for low-income, at-risk children. Those scholarships now cover only about 10 percent of the state's eligible ­children.

"The main focus of our coalition is closing the gap of access in Minnesota," said Frank Forsberg, chairman of the coalition's executive committee and a vice president with the Greater Twin Cities United Way. "We know that there are children in our state who remain unserved."

Minnesota is known for the quality of its early education programs, but is criticized because many students don't have access to those programs.

For example, Minnesota in 2012 spent about $500 million in state and federal funds to provide child development and early education services for 84,000 children, leaving 72,000 children unserved, according to research by the Wilder Foundation. Reductions in the federal Head Start program have created a waiting list of about 5,500 of Minnesota's neediest kids.

In last year's State of the State address, Gov. Mark Dayton pledged to make high-quality, affordable early education programs available to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state by 2018.

It's unclear what that might look like — Dayton isn't talking about his legislative agenda until after the holidays — but it has emboldened early education advocates.

"I think having a governor use his bully pulpit to talk about early education has been very beneficial, especially when there's bipartisan support," Forsberg said.

Earlier this week, the University of Minnesota released a new study that showed low-income Chicago preschoolers enrolled in full-day preschool programs outperformed their peers enrolled in half-day programs on kindergarten readiness tests.

Pays big dividends

It's part of mounting research that shows early education pays big dividends for young children, particularly poor, minority children. In Minnesota, expanding early education opportunities for poor kids is a crucial part of the state's plan to combat the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Approved by lawmakers in 2012, the state's early learning scholarships have received about $53 million in funding so far. In fiscal year 2014, about 5,700 scholarships were awarded. Scholarships have been capped at $5,000, although lawmakers last spring approved lifting that cap.

Many of the groups that distribute the scholarship money report long waiting lists.

Think Small, which distributes scholarships in the metro area and the Arrowhead region, had 1,266 scholarships available as of Sept. 30. Of that amount, about half were awarded to children who had previously received a ­scholarship.

More than 2,100 children were on a waitlist for a scholarship for that same time period, though that number may be higher, said Kat Kempe, the group's senior policy advocate.

Because of the waiting list, Think Small, like many of the other scholarship administrators, hasn't been aggressive in its marketing.

"We don't want to build false hope for these families," Kempe said.

The coalition estimates that there are roughly 20,000 at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds who meet the scholarships' eligibility requirements. Spending between $125 million and $150 million per year would cover those children, Forsberg said.

"There are about 15,000 kids on a waiting list of some kind," he said. "And we all know that $5,000 only goes so far when you're talking about high-quality care."

It's not clear how big of a priority it will be during a legislative session when money could be tight.

"The magic eight ball says the reply is hazy," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who served on the early childhood and youth development policy committee.

Another approach

Former Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, introduced legislation last year that would have extended universal pre-Kindergarten to all 4-year-olds, which is a different approach.

It's unclear whether that proposal will resurface.

For now though, the early education focus is on the state's vulnerable low-income children.

Winkler said he's hopeful that scholarship dollars flow to more counties in Minnesota next year as more child care centers earn Parent Aware ratings, a scholarship requirement. Currently, there are several counties in northern Minnesota and some in the southern part of the state that have yet to receive aid.

"We can't lose sight of the fact that only 10 percent of the eligible children are being served," he said. "There will always be discussions about various programs, but right now the focus has to be on how to reach all kids who need help."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469