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Gov. Dayton should take olive branch offered on pre-K

Duluth News Tribune

The governor’s office and the statewide teachers’ union Education Minnesota have made it clear that, once again, one of the top DFL priorities is universal pre-kindergarten classes. What started as a private scholarship program for at-risk kids has morphed into a nursery-school pilot program at our K-12 schools. And now the governor wants all 4-years-olds in school.

This is the issue that forced a special session last year. In order to get a K-12 education bill signed, the Legislature provided $25 million to serve 74 school districts and 3,300 preschool-aged kids under a pilot program. Children as young as 3 can attend.

Dayton and the teachers’ union now want to “scale” the program into universal pre-K.

Why are they pushing so hard? Universal pre-K is expected to produce at least 3,000 new union jobs. And if these nursery-school teachers are licensed, that would bring in millions of dollars in union dues to Education Minnesota, arguably the best-financed and biggest political force in the state. Sadly, that is what is driving this issue.

Supporters point to a child care crisis to justify the program. But was this crisis caused by our state government? Recall that the governor was behind the failed push to unionize child care providers who accept families receiving a child care subsidy called CCAP.

That unionization campaign, along with unreasonable regulations, caused a dramatic drop in the number of providers: CCAP providers dropped from 13,764 in 2010 to 4,100 in 2017; licensed providers dropped from 11,697 in 2010 to 8,717 in 2017.

Moreover, the Department of Human Services admits, “All-day kindergarten has displaced many existing early childhood facilities, further increasing the demand for space for early childhood programs.”

And now we will force child care providers to compete with “free” universal pre-K?

In a pitch to market the idea to parents, Dayton’s education commissioner said all-day kindergarten was “saving families an average of $5,000 per year in child care costs.” And then she described Dayton’s pre-K plan as “investing in a wide-ranging portfolio of strategies aimed squarely at our littlest learners.”

Why do we need a “portfolio of strategies aimed squarely at our littlest learners?” Apparently kids cannot just be kids anymore. And parents don’t have to parent.

It is not at all clear that most parents think universal pre-K is a good idea or, even if they did, that Minnesota can afford it. The governor is demanding $175 million to fund 17,000 “little learners” in 260 districts. There are 553 school districts in Minnesota; how much would a universal program take away from K-12 budgets? And how are at-risk kids supposed to compete with all the other kids in the state?

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs the House Education Committee, wants to end the governor’s pilot program by restricting funding to the original idea: serving at-risk kids. Her bill would allow the early learning program to stay in place at the current 74 districts but not expand it to new districts. Sensibly, the bill does not require licensed nursery teachers.

“It’s an olive branch to the governor to say that those school districts are not going to lose out on an opportunity to provide quality early to those children in their community,” Loon said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. “They’re just going to have more flexibility with the dollars that I’m assigning to it.”

Gov. Dayton responded by calling Loon’s olive branch “a poke in the eye.”

Loon’s House bill would provide a whopping $1.1 billion in increased per-pupil funding over the biennium; $300 million for early learning programs (including scholarships, home visiting, ECFE and school readiness); $40 million in flexible school readiness aid for the 74 school districts currently in the pre-K pilot; and $22 million for extended time before school, after school and in summer programs for low-income students.

The Senate bill would keep Dayton’s pilot program in place with no additional funding — which means the teachers’ union would be even better positioned to expand nursery care at K-12 schools in the future.

Public schools are not nursery schools; they already have a big and crowded mission. Do we really want to shift the cost of raising small children onto taxpayers, too, ironically making it harder for working parents to stay at home with small children?

If not at home, our “littlest learners” are much better served at churches, through ECFE, and in quality child care. If parents are too poor to afford these options, private charities and the state already are working together to close the gap.

Rep. Loon has offered the governor an olive branch and a very generous funding package; he should take it.

Kim Crockett is a vice president, senior policy fellow, and general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment (americanexperiment.org) in Golden Valley, Minn. The center is a nonpartisan, tax-exempt public policy and educational institution. She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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