Protect the neediest children

The achievement gap is not a rationale for universal pre-K.

There is an old legal maxim: hard cases make bad law.

One hard case before the Legislature is how to educate children deemed “atrisk” so that one day they can launch themselves into the meaningful world of marriage and work. These children, most of whom are born to single mothers, do not just tug at our heart strings, they increasingly tug at our purse strings, too.

One consequence of family breakdown is the achievement gap between minority and white children. In 2018, the Office of Legislative Auditor (OLA) catalogued 42 early childhood programs aimed at closing the gap, calling them “complex and fragmented.” (The Department of Education just received a $4.7 million federal grant to try to sort out the mess.)

State intervention ranges from offering subsidies for early learning scholarships and child care (see, “Child Care Welfare Fraud” on page 10) to direct services like family home visits and pre-K programs. The OLA reviewed nine programs that cost $754 million per biennium, plus millions in one-time funding.

The teachers’ union, working closely with the Dayton-Smith administration, has championed the idea of universal pre-K (UPK)—sending all four-year-olds to school—as a solution to the achievement gap. It is easy to see how this “solution” would result in thousands of new dues-paying members to government unions, but less easy to determine what it would accomplish for at-risk children. Disappointingly, Governor Tim Walz picked up the UPK refrain before and after he was sworn into office.

Advocates boldly sell UPK to parents by pointing to the high cost of child care. A Dayton administration fact sheet said, “Sending every four-year-old to preschool would not only give our kids a great start; it would help families too. … Parents would no longer have to pay out-of-pocket for preschool, and they would avoid the high costs of child care while their children attend preschool programs.”

Do not doubt how fast this could catch on. Recall that just a few years ago, most children went to half-day kindergarten; now, almost all children attend full-day kindergarten. With 32 percent of Minnesota children born outside of wedlock and most young parents working, Minnesota could be at a tipping point for shifting the care of young children to already strained public schools.

Current cost estimates from the state range from $686.9 million with 95 percent of four-year-olds enrolled in half-day school, to $890 million for full-day school. Neither estimate includes year-round costs or capital costs like new classrooms. Plus, what would working parents do the rest of the year if the state wipes out other child care options with “free” preschool? They need a full-day solution (8 to 10 hours a day); so, watch for programs to turn into full-day, year-round child care.

State Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester), chairwoman of the Senate E-12 Education Committee, is leading a bipartisan coalition with a wiser approach. She wants to preserve funding for the neediest families and the existing “mixed-delivery” marketplace so parents from all income levels have quality options. These options include early childhood programs and child care offered in homes, churches, schools, centers and non-profits rather than the state commandeering the marketplace.

“By investing in increased access to targeted early learning scholarships, we ensure our youngest learners have the opportunity to grow and thrive in the future,” she says.

“Close Gaps by 5” is a non-profit devoted to preserving limited public funds for at-risk children and their families. It was conceived by Art Rolnick (formerly with the Federal Reserve) and other business leaders. “This is a bottom-up approach; this is using the market,” he says. “We don’t have to try to figure out how many schools we need or teachers we have to hire. All you have to do is empower the parents and let the market figure it out.”

An enthusiastic Rolnick says the biggest return on investment comes from investing in mothers with in-home visits to teach parenting skills. “You give these parents tools, the tools that middle-class families have, and watch out,” he said. “Watch how quickly those kids catch on and how successful they can be.”