“This state is at a decision point,” Sondra Samuels said about the choices on early education that have been teed up for the 2015 Legislature.

On its face, the choice is this: Should Minnesota extend statewide the work the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) has piloted, using scholarships to enable needy families to enroll young children in programs proven to prepare them for kindergarten?

Or should a similar sum of taxpayer money be used to push school districts to offer free, high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds, regardless of their families’ means?

To Samuels, the NAZ president and CEO, the answer is clear: “Let’s do what works.” She has two years of expectation-beating data that show that for children from some of Minnesota’s neediest urban families, preschool scholarships and NAZ’s additional services work. Federally funded NAZ scholarships have allowed parents of children as young as 2 to choose from 11 quality-rated programs offering a variety of settings, schedules, languages and cultures. As a result, half of the first two NAZ cohorts tested ready for kindergarten, compared with only a third of the neighborhood kids NAZ didn’t reach.

Make more scholarships available, Samuels says, and the trajectory of entire neighborhoods will turn for the better. “I’ve lived on the North Side for 18 years, and I’ve never been more hopeful.”

But the answer isn’t as clear at the State Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget includes more money for NAZ and continued funding of state preschool scholarships — enough to make up for NAZ’s three-year Race to the Top federal grant that ends this year.

But the DFL governor does not include the roughly $150 million per year it would take to give a preschool scholarship to all of the 20,000 low-income Minnesota kids whose odds of school success aren’t good without it. Instead, it includes $106 million for the 2016-17 school year in matching money to encourage school districts to start free pre-K programs for all of the state’s 4-year-olds.

That sum plus $55.5 million over two years in new funding for Head Start, literacy by third grade, child care subsidies, and NAZ itself — plus $100 million for child care tax credits for working families — make this the best gubernatorial budget for little learners ever seen in St. Paul. After a decade of promises, early ed has finally arrived in the political top tier.

For that, Samuels and the MinneMinds coalition are grateful. But with a full-court media press that included a bipartisan 13-legislator briefing for reporters Thursday, MinneMinds is signaling that it aims to redirect Dayton’s school district preschool money to needs-based scholarships. Its show of clout included endorsements by Senate Finance Committee chair Richard Cohen and the chairs of both the House and Senate education funding committees, Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon and DFL Sen. Charles Wiger.

The coalition’s fervor is striking. Samuels explained why. The preschool debate is an emblem of a more fundamental “decision point” confronting Minnesota: Does this state really want to raise the prospects of its most left-behind families? Or is it willing to let the problems of the poor fester in order to better serve the middle class?

Underfund scholarships in order to push school districts toward universal preschool, and the infamous Minnesota achievement gap will persist, Samuels predicts.

“We are talking about resource-poor, brown and black folks that are isolated in these communities. If you say to them, ‘Only your 4-year-old gets help,’ it flies in the face of all the evidence that says you have to start early and stay late to help these children. The flexibility of the scholarships allowed us to take the evidence by the horns and apply it to these lives.

“When are we going to get serious about real outcomes, real change for them?”

The demographic case for “now” is strong. The share of the state’s population that’s nonwhite, non-English-speaking and poor is forecast to grow over the next two decades, even as the total population between ages 25 and 64 takes a 15-year dive. Preparing the NAZ population today to be an economic plus rather than a minus in 2030 looks vitally important.

On their side, MinneMinds has that 2030 workforce projection, several decades of solid research, the track record at NAZ and three other scholarship pilot sites, and the zeal of Minnesota’s early ed rock stars, Samuels and former Minneapolis Fed economist Art Rolnick among them.

But the universal preschool forces aren’t puny. In addition to Dayton, they include many teachers and school administrators who are awakening (belatedly, I’d say) to the good that public preschool could do for them and their communities. Public preschool would employ trained, licensed teachers and approved curricula in adequate, widely available facilities, and would be accountable to the public for its results — all to its credit.

The arguments for universal preschool echo the free-kindergarten push of nearly a century ago and the goals of the mid-20th-century women’s movement. If preschool’s lessons are so important, why shouldn’t the public’s responsibility for the next generation’s learning start at age 4 rather than 5? If skilled labor will soon be short, why not make it easier for all parents to work outside the home and share the responsibilities of adulthood more equitably?

In a Brainpower State with a nation-leading share of working mothers, those are worthy questions. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, had a worthy answer Thursday: “We have limited resources. We have to target them where there is greatest need.”

Allocating limited dollars where they are needed the most — that sums up the Legislature’s budgetmaking duty on every issue. It’s always a values-laden task. On this key issue in this rare crisis-free year, the need is indisputable, the proffered solution is tried and proven, and the opportunity to change lives is at hand. What’s decided will affect not just the next few years but the next few decades in Minnesota’s shared life. It will say much about who we Minnesotans are and what we value.

“This issue puts us on our best behavior as legislators,” Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said Thursday. I hope he’s right.

 

Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.