As longtime advocates of universal preschool, we are excited that Minnesota may finally offer 3- and 4-year-olds real classrooms with fully paid, licensed teachers. At the same time, as school reform advocates, we are less excited that some of our fellow reformers are taking this opportunity to live up to their stereotype as free-market "privatizers."
In case you don't know, here's the short story:
Gov. Mark Dayton's budget has proposed $109 million to fund public preschool — open to all students — for Minnesota 4-year-olds. In response, members of a coalition called MinneMinds are voicing concerns that the proposal would slow their plans to get $150 million for day care coupons that partly cover fewer than 21,000 children. ("Use early ed to do the greatest good," editorial, Feb. 16.)
In a perfect world, these two proposals could coexist. Giving parents assistance to access quality early-education services in the private market while also ensuring that there is a public option for families who prefer it should not be controversial.
We support Dayton's pledge to get all 3- and 4-year-olds access to quality early-learning opportunities by 2018. We believe that goal will require a mix of public and private strategies. But we do not have a perfect world. Often leaders believe all policy decisions must be made within a context of finite resources.
Fear about universal preschool expenditures impacting the MinneMinds vouchers plan is only the beginning. Some in the coalition seem disdainful of public schools in general, and of specific social programs poor families rely on.
They ask why not simply take all of the money Minnesota "wastes" on those programs and put it into "scholarships" for "high quality" early-learning providers?
For the rest of us, the answer is obvious.
Parents in low-income households have a variety of circumstances that contribute to their poverty. Child care and other early-learning opportunities can be out of reach for reasons of geography, funding or scheduling. No one program does it all. It is nice to know that when market-based programs fail, there is a public option that is nearby, reliable and open. This includes important programs like universal prekindergarten, Head Start and the Basic Sliding Fee Child Care Assistance Program.
Until now, we have basically been supportive of MinneMinds as a minor program that won't hurt. They got $40 million in state funding and that seems fine for their limited purpose.
But here are a few pieces of truth the public should know: MinneMinds is very much a voucher program with a lot of right-leaning belief in the religiosity of free-market thinking. The lack of diversity in the coalition's leadership muddles the group's understanding of families in poverty. That is a major problem if they're successful in designing a whole system of early learning just among themselves.
There is one last problem. If it weren't enough that the MinneMinds table is led by corporate philanthropy managers, big-box child care retailers are at the table, too. They stand to gain thousands of new customers and millions of dollars if MinneMinds succeeds. It's stunning that no one has called out this blatant conflict of interest.
We are on the brink of achieving public preschool for all Minnesota children. That is major. Let's not be derailed by corporate interests and free-market ideologues who can barely spell equity, much less plan for it.
Latasha Gandy and Chris Stewart are founding members of Black Advocates for Education, a grass-roots coalition seeking justice in education.