How to Rein in State Pre-K Program While Helping At-Risk Kids

It’s coming down to the wire again at the state legislature with Gov. Dayton going all-out once more for expanding Pre-K funding. But American Experiment’s Kim Crockett points out in the Duluth News Tribune that it may not be designed so much for the kids as for the teachers’ union.

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.

Crockett makes the case that the Pre-K program essentially puts the state increasingly in charge of child care in Minnesota.Loon

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.”

You can read Kim’s complete column here.