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Voluntary Pre-K held at 2017 level, but does not target neediest children

I wrote about the importance of preserving limited pre-school tax dollars for the neediest children among us in Thinking Minnesota this spring. And also made the point that Minnesota’s persistent and growing the achievement gap is not a rationale for sending three and four-year-olds to our public schools.

This may be obvious to most people but the Dayton administration, the DFL and teachers’ unions have been arguing for years that minority and other children in vulnerable populations (children of single parents, mostly) benefit from early education programs, and that therefore, all children should begin formal, public school years before kindergarten age.

That leap from the hard case of educating at-risk children to universal pre-K is illogical and ignores how a state takeover of child care will wipe out the marketplace of childcare options as private providers struggle to compete with “free” child care at area schools.

We can discuss the merits early education’s impact on the achievement gap, and child care options for working parents in depth elsewhere, as they are big topics. (The Star Tribune just reported that Minnesota is spending $600 million a year to close the achievement gap, and has spent $5 billion over the last decade, yet the gap is not just persistent but growing. Patrick Coolican at the Strib, whom I spoke to about the state’s proper role in providing child care, wrote over that this is going to heat up as political issue, especially for young couples trying to start families while paying down school debt, etc.)

My purpose here is to report on what happened during the 2019 budget session at the Legislature. There is mixed news, which is to be expected given Minnesota’s divided government, and just the propensity of government to keep spending what it spent during the last budget cycle, whoever is in charge.

Unlike Mark Dayton, who was a relentless mouthpiece and hammer for the teachers’ union, Gov. Tim Walz has thus far taken a slightly more moderate stance on pre-K funding and policy.

In 2017, during a special session, the GOP agreed to $50 million in one-time funding for what the GOP calls “school readiness plus.” This was a compromise that allowed the GOP to reach an education deal with Governor Dayton. This year, Gov. Walz did not push for a big increase in pre-K, or insist on universal pre-K as a goal. But he did get that one-time $50 million in funding renewed, calling it “voluntary pre-K.”

Sen. Carla Nelson, who chairs the E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, proposed that the $50 million could be better spent by providing early learning scholarships to at-risk children, telling me that public dollars must be carefully targeted to the families least able to afford preschool opportunities and who could most benefit from the assistance. Furthermore, Senator Nelson favors scholarships because it allows parents themselves to direct the funds to the best preschool settings for their children from approved options that include quality programs offered by public or other licensed and rated providers such as church-run programs, in-home care, and nonpublic child care centers. She calls this “mixed delivery.” It ensures that the child is well-served but also that the marketplace of child care options remains strong and healthy.

 

Instead, the $50 million will continue to fund early learning exclusively at public providers where parents are removed from direct decision-making. The money also does not solely target at-risk children, but, as Sen. Nelson noted, the school districts participating in the program at this time do serve lower income communities. Senator Nelson said, “Moving past the hectic last-minute negotiations to end this year’s Session, when there is more time to consider the best approach, I hope the Governor will choose to close the achievement gap for these at-risk children by empowering their parents through scholarships.”

In summary, the bad news is that Minnesota is spending enormous sums of money on education programs for very young children, but the state’s mission is muddled (is it education or is it child care?) and the results are discouraging. Plus, the policy forces private child care providers to compete with “free” child care, thus undermining child care options for parents, threatening to create a government monopoly on child care. Do we really want our already stretched K-12 schools and taxpayers to take on this mission?

The good news is that the Senate was able to hold the line, with no increase in spending, and Governor Walz, a former educator, so far is showing some independence from the teachers’ union.

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