Gov. Mark Dayton ripped into House and Senate legislators Wednesday for their rejection of his top legislative priority: universal preschool for the state's 4-year-olds.

For "universal pre-K, I had proposed $343 million," Dayton said. "The House is at zero. Senate's at zero. I consider that a) unacceptable and b) insulting."

The House Republican education bill largely ignores Dayton's funding request, which would offer preschool primarily through the state's public elementary schools, taking advantage of existing school structures and busing networks. Instead, the GOP proposal would beef up early-learning scholarships for so-called at-risk children by $30 million. It also would boost funding by $9.5 million for school readiness programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The Senate DFL plan, released Wednesday, would pump $70 million into school readiness programs, but only $5 million for early-learning scholarships.

Both plans drew sharp criticism from Dayton in Wednesday's hastily arranged news conference, where the governor singled out the Republicans' education proposal. Dayton said he expressed his displeasure with House Republicans in a morning meeting.

He also noted that the overall House budget target for education "is just unacceptably low to me. They're so far below what I will even begin to negotiate on that I don't intend to start that process until they start at acceptable levels."

Dayton's budget proposal calls for a 3 percent increase in the state's per-pupil funding formula over two years. The Senate would increase funding by 2 percent, the House by 1.2 percent.

The governor would devote most of the state's projected $1.9 billion surplus to education, while Republicans are committed to returning $2 billion in tax cuts.

Dayton's rebuke of both proposals comes as legislators prepare to negotiate the final details and reconcile the wide gulfs between competing proposals by the House, Senate and Dayton. The public lashing by Dayton exposed the fault lines in the debate on how to best provide early-childhood education for the state's youngest.

DFL and GOP legislators largely agree on the benefits of early-childhood learning. But how to go about it is revealing ideological divides that could be hard to bridge in the legislative session's remaining month. Republicans are not enamored of further enlarging the public school system, with its staff of union teachers. Those representing smaller schools say their districts may lack the capacity to add another grade.

Some supporters of early education say scarce state resources should be aimed at low-income families, where the return is the largest and serves the greatest need. Others say that while universal access to preschool has merit, there are other causes deserving of a piece of the state's projected surplus.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said his committee found the sheer cost of Dayton's preschool proposal daunting.

"Once it became clear that we did not have the funds to implement the universal pre-K full-time, [we looked] at how can this be scaled back," Wiger said.

House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the GOP bill makes the best use of limited state funds.

"It targets our dollars to the children and families that are most needy and gives parents maximum choice," Loon said.

Union a visible ally

Among Dayton's most visible allies in his push for universal preschool is Education Minnesota, the statewide union representing 70,000 educators. The teachers union Wednesday launched a television ad calling for the state's surplus to be invested in education, including universal preschool. The ad will run for the next four weeks online and on television — the duration of the legislative session.

One of the stipulations of Dayton's preschool proposal is that teachers be licensed in early-childhood education, a requirement likely to swell the union's ranks.

In a statement Wednesday, Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said that the state has made significant investments in the past two years to help all students. "What our new ad shows is that, with a nearly $1.9 billion surplus, Minnesota is in a prime position to build on that progress and make real investments in real solutions that improve the lives of our students, educators and communities," Specht said.

Scholarship advocates

Proponents for increasing funding for early-learning scholarships include Art Rolnick, a former senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a leading expert who has studied the benefits of early-childhood education extensively and was among its first advocates.

Rolnick and other advocates for scholarships say targeted scholarships have a higher rate of return and would do more to close the state's glaring achievement gap between white and minority students.

"Most of the money that the governor is proposing for early ed would go to middle-class kids," Rolnick said. "That's not where the achievement gap is. It's very expensive, so I think what's happening politically is that people are recognizing that it doesn't prioritize … our most at-risk kids and it limits them" to public schools.

In a statement, Ericca Maas, executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness, a business-backed group lobbying for more scholarship funding, called House Republicans' strategy sound and pushed for more early-learning grants.

"The early-education policy set in the House's budget proposal wisely focuses investments on the most at-risk children and high quality Parent Aware-rated programs," Maas said. Meanwhile, she said, "the Senate proposal is much less flexible, parent-friendly and targeted than the House budget." Parent Aware counts some of the state's largest corporations and charitable foundations on its board and among its donors. Rolnick is a board member.

Both Senate and House proposals appear to favor school readiness programs above more structured preschool. School districts use the funding to create flexible, tailored programs aimed at preparing 3- and 4-year-olds for kindergarten. Some use the money to fund a staffer who offers a half-day program, while others partner with local community-based organizations. School readiness programs received $22.4 million from the state in the 2014-15 budget.