Minnesota's statewide teachers union is renewing its push for universal access to preschool, releasing a report Thursday that supports the expansion of early-learning programs offered through public schools.

The report, by a new think tank, said Minnesota should offer universal preschool on a voluntary basis, ensuring that all families have access to early-learning programs. A copy of the report can be found here.

Education Minnesota and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who lobbied heavily for the plan last year, have been met with firm resistance by House Republicans, who are instead focusing on a proposal to expand an education tax credit in the upcoming session. Republicans also note that last year, Dayton approved an education budget with $525 million in new spending, including about $80 million for early-learning programs.

The renewed push for early-education funding will set up a fight at the Capitol, where House Republicans have sought to put new money toward education scholarships that give parents control over where the money is spent. Senate Democrats last year chose to fund existing prekindergarten programs, which vary in their availability across school districts.

Speaking at a Minneapolis elementary school Thursday, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said families should be able to enroll their 4-year-olds in high-quality preschool programs at no cost.

"The benefits of preschool are so great to the children who receive it and so costly to the children who are denied it," Specht said. "We must consider preschool as part of our infrastructure."

School districts last year also resisted a universal preschool program, saying that they had little space to house more students following the implementation of all-day kindergarten.

Republican legislators have proposed expanding the state's education tax credit, available to lower-income residents. The maximum tax credit is $1,000 per student, but Republicans have proposed raising it to $3,500 and boosting the maximum income for eligibility to $47,000. The tax credit would be used to cover the cost of private school tuition, triggering criticism from Dayton's office that it was a "backdoor private school voucher."

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, offered the tax-credit expansion as a way to reduce economic disparities in education. Knoblach is co-chair of a legislative working group assigned to reduce Minnesotans' economic racial disparities.

Dayton's office argues that expanding the tax credit to offset the cost of private tuition could potentially be unconstitutional, citing a 1971 Minnesota Supreme Court case.

Knoblach cited a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed Arizona to offer tax credits to school tuition organizations providing scholarships to attend private or religious schools, arguing that the GOP proposal is constitutional.

"There might be more of an argument if this were a voucher," Knoblach said. "This is a tax credit."

Ricardo Lopez • 651-925-5044