When Gov. Mark Dayton announced earlier this year that his top priority would be universal preschool for all of Minnesota's 4-year-olds, congratulations poured in for Art Rolnick, a former Federal Reserve economist who has spent the last 12 years advocating state support of early learning programs.

Followers of Rolnick's research were elated that early learning had finally catapulted to the top of the state's agenda. Rolnick, however, did not share their enthusiasm.

For years, he had laid the groundwork to secure funding for early learning scholarships. He argued that legislators working with limited state resources should focus their efforts on preparing children of lower-income families for kindergarten. State data show that lower-income and minority children lag their white, more affluent counterparts even before starting school — and never catch up.

Universal prekindergarten, Rolnick said, "is like a subsidy for middle-class families, but there are other ways of doing that. Is that the top priority in this state? It seems that the top priority should be the achievement gap."

From Dayton's perspective, universal preschool is needed to reduce the burden of high child care costs for all Minnesota families, while also providing access to high quality early learning at their public schools.

"You have working parents that are looking at child care bills for one child of anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000, which is an enormous financial burden on working parents," Dayton said in an interview Friday. "That's where I have a hard time with those that say we should leave them to their own financial devices and put our money only into scholarships for kids from even more disadvantaged backgrounds."

Dayton, who last year signed off on $100 million of legislative initiatives for closing the achievement gap, said he continues to support such efforts, but that other families should not be left out of preschool access.

"I don't see that as a reason to deny pre-K to children who would also benefit from it," he said. "To say we'll leave them to their own devices and they'll catch up eventually … I don't understand why Mr. Rolnick wants to posit it as one or the other."

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius said that Republican-leaning states such an Oklahoma and Georgia have implemented universal preschool. "Providing universal pre-K is more about access and getting every kid a great start," she said, noting that Minnesota lags many other states in its offerings of early childhood education.

The achievement gap, she said, is much more complex and will take "a whole lot more than just giving preschool" to close it.

An unlikely champion

A self-described nerdy economist, Rolnick at first glance appears an unlikely champion for the early-learning cause. His academic expertise is in pre-Civil War Banking. For 40 years he worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, leading its research before retiring in 2010.

In the early 2000s, Rolnick earned a reputation as an outspoken opponent of taxpayer-funded sports stadiums. He frequently argued that instead of subsidizing stadiums, state lawmakers should invest in high-quality early learning programs.

By 2003, he was making an economic pitch for strong preschool intervention that would begin at birth.

"Without support during these early years, a child is more likely to drop out of school, receive welfare benefits and commit crime," he wrote. "How does a new stadium reduce crime, increase earnings and potentially break a chain of poverty?"

Since then, Rolnick's relentless drive to reduce racial disparities in education has taken him around the country. Rolnick has given TED talks, served as a consultant for preschool policy proposals in other states. He was recently part of a PBS documentary series exploring preschool efforts in the U.S.

He even found himself drawn into the politics of preschool when House Republicans invited him to critical budget negotiations at the governor's residence in May. The Dayton administration responded by inviting Arthur Reynolds, a University of Minnesota early learning expert — and Rolnick's colleague.

Rolnick has gained adherents in the Legislature in part by assigning a value to the rate of return on educating young learners, showing that for every dollar spent on quality preschool, society gets $17 in return, via higher educational attainment, reductions in future crime and less dependence on government programs.

"He's put figures to that, and I think that's a very compelling argument," said House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.

Reynolds credits Rolnick with getting buy-in from the state's largest businesses.

"Until about 10 years ago, a lot of the business community wasn't as present, wasn't as involved in scaling up or implementing effective programs," Reynolds said. "That was a contribution that Art and others have made."

Not mutually exclusive

Reynolds contends that support for private child care providers and a universal preschool offered through public schools is not mutually exclusive. What's important, he said, is quality. Effective preschool programs require a strong play-based curriculum and certified teachers, among other criteria. Reynolds said his research has shown that academic gains for preschool children are more reliable in public school settings.

"In the end, it's the element of effectiveness you have to implement," he said. "I think you get a little bit more reliability in schools, and that's the advantage."

Rolnick has said he will continue to oppose Dayton's efforts on universal prekindergarten. His biggest fear is that the state will dedicate limited dollars on a program that he says won't reduce the state's achievement gap.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, shares that concern.

"As we look at the tremendous achievement gap and the disparities and the issue around equity and access for our students who are most at risk, all the evidence, all the research shows that our dollars should be focused on making sure those little ones living in poverty have access to high-quality preschool," Bonoff said. "As long as we have little ones living in poverty, that's where our efforts should be."

Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044