Senate DFL preschool plan has hefty price

The Minnesota Senate DFL proposal for universal, all-day preschool would cost nearly $417 million over its first two years and significantly more in the future.

Members of the Senate E-12 Budget Division received the estimate today during a hearing on the bill, which was among the first six priority bills that DFL leaders introduced at the start of the 2015 session. The fiscal note showed the initial cost of $416.7 million in 2016 and 2017. The cost would jump to $581 million in 2018 and 2019.

The bill would allow every four-year-old in the state to attend preschool free of charge in programs operated by public schools.

Sen. John Hoffmann, DFL-Champlin, said he wasn’t surprised by the estimate for his bill. Hoffman said there’s a lot of research that shows the benefit of pre-kindergarten education, especially for at-risk children.

“This is an investment in our future, and it’s going to pay off,” Hoffman said.

Supporters of private child care and the state’s recently enacted early learning scholarships raised concerns about the impact of a universal public option on their interests.

Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the cost.

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said the bill’s estimated price tag is similar to the amount of increased K-12 spending for all grade levels in last two-year budget. Nienow said it should be targeted to children most in need rather than all children.

“That’s why you have such a huge figure,” Nienow said. “If you could target this, you could get that dollar figure down and you could get much more bang for the buck.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, is also suggesting that the bill might be too expensive. Bakk said he wants more state money going into early childhood education this session, but he said the proposal could be scaled back from its current form.

“It’s probably beyond our reach to make it totally free in this next biennium,” Bakk said.