At elementary schools around Minnesota, some of the most visible results of Gov. Mark Dayton’s long quest to bolster the state’s public education system are sitting in the tiniest desks and chairs.

Most of the state’s 5-year-olds now attend all-day kindergarten, an option the state began funding four years ago. Thousands of 4-year-olds are also at school, in prekindergarten classrooms offered in a growing number of public districts and charter schools. The programs that were once topics of protracted debates at the State Capitol are now the status quo.

“You don’t have to have the fights anymore about preschool, because everybody recognizes that everybody needs a great start,” said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

It’s a significant shift from eight years ago, when Dayton was on the campaign trail, pledging to take aim at Minnesota’s persistent achievement gaps by devoting more resources to education. At the DFL governor’s urging, the Legislature has spent $326 million to create and expand early learning programs.

While the long-term impact of those investments is still unclear — recent data show little progress in closing the achievement gap — both the governor’s supporters and those who have sparred with him over education issues say the governor will leave office early next year having changed the way Minnesotans talk and think about the state’s youngest students.

Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs who has researched the links between early education and economic development, said Dayton has been instrumental in getting lawmakers from both parties, and local business leaders, willing to spend time and money to catch Minnesota up to states that spend more on early learning.

“If you don’t have a governor leading this, it’s going to be very hard to get it,” Rolnick said.

Sparking praise, criticism

When Dayton took office in 2011, he inherited a more than $6 billion state budget deficit and a school system grappling with funding that had dropped or flattened during the recession.

Over the next eight years, the governor pushed lawmakers to spend more, arguing that Minnesota was slipping in its national position as a leader in education. In that time period, the state increased school spending by more than $2 billion. (Minnesota now ranks 18th in the nation on per-pupil spending, up a few slots from the start of Dayton’s time in office, but down from a few decades ago.)

Cassellius, who has served as Dayton’s education chief during his entire time in office, said the governor emphasized spending that money fairly, pushing for policy changes that helped shrink a growing funding gap between metro-area and rural schools, provided targeted help to schools with large numbers of American Indian students and other groups, and expanded antibullying and mental health programs.

“It’s those little, technical things that matter to kids who need it the most in some of our rural and poorest districts,” Cassellius said.

But it’s the governor’s more well-publicized efforts on early education that have prompted some of the most significant kudos, criticism and occasional legislative gridlock.

First, there was Dayton’s successful effort to get the state to foot the bill for all-day kindergarten. Before he took office, Minnesota covered the cost of half-day kindergarten, leaving it to individual districts and families to pay for full-day programs. About half of the state’s public school districts offered a full-day option, but in many cases they were charging parents up to $4,000 per year to enroll their children.

In 2013, Dayton signed off on a $134 million bill from the DFL-controlled Legislature, providing support for all districts offering full-day kindergarten. Five years later, the option is available at virtually every public school in the state.

Lynn Jordre, a kindergarten teacher at Oak Hill Community School in St. Cloud with nearly three decades of experience, said the extra hours in a kindergartner’s school day make a big difference.

Teachers have more time to get to know students and assess their individual needs, and students have more opportunity to learn important social skills and the fundamentals of reading, math and other subjects.

“Kindergarten and preschool is much more than playing,” she said.

Preschool spending debate

The same year the Legislature funded all-day kindergarten it also set aside money for about 500 need-based scholarships for preschool students. Over the next few years, Dayton advocated for more spending for low-income 4-year-olds, and the amount of scholarships grew exponentially.

This year, the state funded nearly 16,000 early learning scholarships, plus prekindergarten programming for close to 7,200 other students.

Some legislators questioned the need for government intervention into preschool education, or noted that the millions spent on prekindergarten were forcing school districts to make cuts at other grade levels.

Others agreed with Dayton that the state should help support early learning — but continue to take issue with his tactics.

Dayton’s insistence that the state spend more on prekindergarten — and make it available to all students — was among the factors that pushed the Legislature into special session as it tried to finish its work in the last two budget cycles, with Republican leaders arguing that the DFL governor was trying to bolster a supportive teacher’s union with an additional grade level, rather than providing targeted help for the students who needed it most.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, a former teacher who heads the state Senate’s education finance committee, praised Dayton’s efforts to raise the profile of early education. But she said state leaders need to be realistic about using their limited budgets to the greatest effect.

“He wanted to give a Band-Aid to everyone when not every child had a cut, so to speak,” she said.

Nelson said the state’s lack of progress on academic achievement gaps remains a concern. Statewide test scores released this year showed a 35 percentage point gap between white and black students in reading and an even bigger gulf in math. The same tests showed no overall improvement in math and reading scores.

Results for the third-graders who were part of the first statewide class of all-day kindergarten students were flat compared to other classes’ scores in recent years, though Cassellius said it’s too soon to expect significant results at that grade level.

Both she and Dayton said the results of broader access to early learning programs will be most visible in a decade or two, as those students graduate from high school and move on to college or the workforce.

Dayton, who worked as a teacher in New York City’s public schools before launching a career in politics, said he’s glad he aligned himself with teachers and schools and attempted to address what he saw as their greatest needs.

“I feel proudest of providing the resources that were lacking before,” Dayton said.