We’ll get to the Legislature’s impending special session in a moment. First, a Perpich story:
It was September 1985, and my reporting assignment involved traipsing around the state with DFL Gov. Rudy Perpich. It wasn’t easy for a mom with a 2-year-old to keep up with a governor whose daily press advisory often said “6:30 a.m., wheels up, Holman Field.” But traveling with Perpich often brought the reward of an exclusive news tip. The gregarious governor couldn’t resist sharing scuttlebutt or a brainstorm with his journalistic tag-alongs.
Perpich had met my son Ted a few times. That day, he told me, “By the time Ted is a kindergartner, we’ll have all-day kindergarten. Mark my words.”
Ted is now a father himself. Perpich died 20 years ago. And tuition-free, all-day kindergarten in public schools finally arrived in Minnesota last fall, 29 years after that fine September morning.
One might shrug at that story and observe that changing big governmental systems takes time — and that Perpich was often ahead of his time.
Or — if one is Gov. Mark Dayton, who draws inspiration from Perpich’s legacy and, at age 68 and serving his last term, ponders his own — one could respond with a vow not to let one’s own top educational goal befall the same fate.
Perpich never called a special session for all-day kindergarten. Dayton says he will call one as soon as he can convince legislators to agree to a bigger E-12 bill that includes some version of his pet project, tuition-free preschool for 4-year-olds.
Other topics will be on a special-session agenda, too. The wish list is sure to include two bills that didn’t beat the regular-session clock last Monday. One allocates the Legacy sales tax proceeds to natural resources and arts projects; the other funds $107 million in building projects, including a pricey, bound-to-be-controversial underground parking facility abutting the State Capitol.
Other vetoes might lengthen the list. Negotiations could interject more. A tax cut might be needed as grease for House GOP skids.
But let this be the preschool session. After years of neglect and excuses for underfunding, preschool deserves a spell in Minnesota’s political spotlight. In a state in which 42 percent of births in 2013 were to mothers on Medicaid — a share that has been steadily climbing — a lot is riding on low-income children having a chance to catch up and keep up academically with the rest of the class. High-quality preschool greatly increases those chances.
That said, the coming special session looks like one that could have been avoided. Reports that trickled out after Monday’s final gavel fell indicate that a preschool/ed funding deal was within reach that night. A reported $25 million separated Dayton and House Republican holdouts for a smaller bill. That’s small change when upward of $1 billion remains unclaimed on the state’s biennial bottom line.
Notable in the final exchange of offers was an overdue show of gubernatorial flexibility concerning his preschool initiative’s design. At literally the 11th hour, Dayton reportedly backed off his insistence on “universal” preschool, the 4-year-old equivalent of kindergarten in every district. That idea wasn’t selling, partly because of its $170-million-per-year cost, partly because it did not target help at disadvantaged kids, and partly because it was regarded as a growth scheme for Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union that’s firmly allied with the DFL Party.
Dayton signaled willingness to back a juiced-up version of School Readiness, a cleverly designed but long-neglected public-school program that’s been looking like a dealmaking ingredient all year.
School Readiness was considered breakthrough stuff when it became law in 1992, at $10 million a year. Twenty-two years later, when that amount was finally increased to $12 million a year, Minnesota had fallen way behind other states in public-school preschool spending. That shouldn’t have happened. Wonks can while away many hours theorizing about why it did.
Suffice to say that School Readiness has a number of laudable features that should have kept it on preschool advocates’ radar. Its funding favors high-need populations. It’s voluntary for both schools and parents. It’s operated by community education programs, which affords flexibility in facilities and scheduling, yet it’s tied to school districts, allowing for curriculum coordination with the grades that follow. School Readiness teachers aren’t required to be licensed, but according to a survey by the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, most of those who deliver instruction are.
Best of all, the association reports, School Readiness programs are producing praiseworthy results: 75 to 90 percent of at-risk participants emerge fully prepared for kindergarten.
That’s why the DFL-controlled Senate’s E-12 bill favored an expansion of School Readiness over Dayton’s original plan. It’s why the bill Dayton vetoed split its $60 million in new preschool money between scholarships for needy children and School Readiness. It’s why renewed talks among lawmakers about how to pass an education bill this year should start where negotiations the last night of the regular session left off, with School Readiness.
But they shouldn’t end there. Preschool isn’t the only thing that was underfunded in the E-12 bill Dayton vetoed.
The bill said no to eliminating the waiting list for Head Start, now 2,500 children long. It did nothing for the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, where intensive “preschool-plus” services to families are combating concentrated poverty. It did little for American Indian students and nothing about decrepit Bureau of Indian Education schools. It offered no new money for special ed or English-language learners, or for free breakfasts for young children.
Meanwhile, the human-services bill Dayton signed does only a little to reduce a waiting list for sliding-fee child care support that now exceeds 10,000 names. It keeps the state’s welfare families stuck with the same puny monthly grants they’ve had since 1986. And the failure to enact a tax bill ended hope that child care and working family tax credits for low- and middle-income families would increase this year.
Can these ways of helping young children in low-income families be better coordinated? Absolutely. Dayton said last week he has moved Melvin Carter, director of the state’s Office of Early Learning, into the governor’s office with that in mind. State Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, has suggested that a commission review all of the public programs pertaining to child development to wring out complication and duplication. That notion would fit nicely in a special session E-12 bill. It might help seal a deal.
Dayton has picked a fight that could prove hard to win. It’s much easier for a governor to compel state government to spend less than to convince an unwilling Legislature to spend more. But he’s determined to avoid a replay of the 29-year saga of all-day kindergarten. He knows that if preschool expansion waits for another generation, Minnesota will be a poorer state for it.
Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at email@example.com.