PoliGraph: Arguing for and against public pre-K

poligraph-accurateThe 2015 session will be remembered as the one when Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature couldn’t come to terms on education funding. Dayton vetoed the education bill.

Dayton wants $150 million more in the K-12 education bill to support pre-kindergarten programs in public schools. Republicans and some DFLers say the additional $400 million they put into education should be enough. Most of it is going to the per pupil formula.

It’s an issue that has pitted Dayton against members of his own party, and underscores a fundamental difference in how many Democrats and Republicans view the issue of early learning.

  1. Listen PoliGraph: May 22

Many on the right say that, in addition to giving schools more money across the board, extra cash should be invested in early learning scholarships for low-income students, which gives parents a choice in where their kids start their education. (The funding bill includes money for this program, too.)

On the left, many believe that to level the playing field for all kids, early education should be free and offered universally in public schools.

This week, PoliGraph looked at two essential arguments on either side of the debate.

The impasse sets the Legislature up for a special session to renegotiate a deal before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins and the state’s education department would shut down without annual funding.

Republicans say Minnesota’s school administrators oppose Dayton’s pre-K plan.

Dayton’s proposed expansion would be voluntary and for only half the day.

Some school superintendents do oppose the idea. For instance, the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, which represents schools in the Twin Cities area, said universal pre-kindergarten “is a worthy goal.”

“But our school districts need time to secure the necessary classroom space and licensed staff, develop transportation plans, provide staff training, and be prepared to serve pre-kindergarten students with special needs,” wrote AMSD executive director Scott Croonquist in a letter to House Education Finance Chair Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie earlier this month.

Instead, Croonquist’s group supports more funding for the per pupil formula – which is what the bill sent to Dayton includes – and higher investments in the School Readiness program, which serves 3 and 4 year olds who are underprepared for kindergarten.

Similar views are shared by the Minnesota School Boards Association, individual administrators across the state, and even Dayton’s Early Learning Council, which suggested some of the money should be invested in the early education scholarship program.

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators has a more nuanced view on the issue. Executive Director Gary Amoroso said his group supports Dayton’s call for $150 million more. But it would like to see much of it added to the formula, with an undefined expansion of early childhood learning coming next.

Amoroso said he doesn’t view the issue as a divide between Dayton and the superintendents.

However, some superintendents do support Dayton’s proposal.

They include Julia Espe, who is superintendent of Princeton’s Public Schools. She wrote in a letter to legislators that “universal pre-K for 4-year-olds will help us with our core mission–educating every single student… Why can’t we provide this strategy to close the achievement gap when the state has a surplus?”

Espe’s views were echoed by superintendents in Bloomington, Maplewood and South St. Paul, among other places.

Dayton says universal pre-kindergarten in public schools will help close the achievement gap.

At the core of Dayton’s argument is that expanding pre-kindergarten to public schools will give all kids a better start in life.

Dayton has cause for concern. Minnesota ranks last among 41 states when it comes to access to state pre-kindergarten programs and Minnesota ranks high when it comes to daycare and pre-kindergarten costs.

And the state’s achievement gap between white students and students of color remains stubbornly wide.

Meanwhile, there’s some consensus among early learning experts that students, regardless of race and economic background, who attend high quality pre-kindergarten do better in school and in life, said Milagros Nores, who is Associate Director of Research at the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Nores added that the effects are even stronger for low-income, minority and dual language children.

But Nores said learning can happen in a number of settings, not just public schools, and still be successful.

“If the experience is high-quality, then it doesn’t matter where the child learns,” she said.

Some states, including Georgia, have an all-public approach, and the outcomes are good. Other states use a combination of public and private programs, and children are successful there, too, Nores said.

Minnesota falls into the latter category, with lower-income children accessing pre-K with state-funded scholarships. Dayton’s budget preserves that funding, but critics say more money should be dedicated to those programs.

University of Minnesota professor and early childhood learning expert Arthur Reynolds agrees that quality trumps location.

But Reynolds also pointed out that many of the factors associated with quality – such as teaching skills and curriculum – are often found in the public school setting.

“Many of these features are more common in schools, especially teacher pay and certification, but private centers can also be very strong in these areas, sometimes stronger such as in [lower] group size,” Reynolds said. “There tends to be more variation in quality in private programs comparatively.”

Reynolds also emphasized access, particularly when it comes to pre-K costs in Minnesota.

“There has been greater reliance on private programs, family -based programs but the need to build a larger more unified system is real and that is what the Governor is proposing,” Reynold said.

The Verdicts

Figuring out how to better educate Minnesota’s children is a politically thorny and complicated issue.

And while there’s some uncertainty about how widespread support is for Dayton’s plan and whether ultimately expanding pre-kindergarten to all public schools is entirely necessary, politicians on both sides of the issue are making sound and reasonable arguments based on plenty of facts.

That’s why PoliGraph is saying both sides are accurate.


  • Bill

    Is it true that MN Republicans hate public schools? or Kill puppies?

    • kevins

      Not just Minnesota Republicans….

      • lindblomeagles

        While its true Republicans aren’t alone the issue, it’s also true the most frequent public school criticisms come from Republicans. You’re splitting hairs kevins. You represent the party of principals. Stand by your hate. Don’t hide when the spotlight comes to you or whisper in the dark when nobody is paying attention.

    • lindblomeagles

      Yes Bill, Minnesota Republicans, generally speaking, hate the state’s public school system (and National Republicans aren’t big fans of our country’s public schools either).
      On the record, Republicans argue too many public school teachers aren’t held accountable for public school students’ failings; public school unions don’t or won’t implement (Republican) changes; and too many taxpayers are paying out too much in high taxes for a (social) government program that isn’t working, i.e. a bad Return On Investment (ROI).
      What this issue for Republicans is really about, however, is a large portion of the state’s K-12 budget is appropriated to Minneapolis and St Paul (yep, its regional). The students served in these two districts are predominantly Hispanic, Asian, and African American (yep, its based on race too). And while results for African American students are poor, there just aren’t as many African Americans attending other public school districts across the state as there are in Minneapolis and St Paul.
      There ARE pockets of Hispanics, however, attending other Minnesota public school districts (see Worthington, Austin, Albert Lea, Rochester, Moorhead). Hispanic student enrollment in public schools is expected to rise, which means (in the minds of Republicans) more white people’s money is going to non-white students.
      Moreover, other Minnesota cities, notably Duluth with its economic ties to a roller coaster mining industry, need the state’s K-12 funding to cover tax collection shortfalls during mining downturns (yep, economic class is involved here as well).
      The REAL PROBLEM BILL isn’t public schools (whites still attending public schools like Edina, Wayzata, Hopkins, Hastings, Stillwater, etc.show no drop off in academic success at all). It really comes down to what does the State’s African American population need to become academically proficient (that part is true; Blacks really not doing well), and that answer has eluded BOTH parties, teachers, and teachers’ unions.

    • toadUso

      Hate’s a strong word, but a party platform with vouchers and charter expansion – despite charters not performing better than public schools – is not exactly public education friendly. Then there’s Rep Sondra Erickson who a few years back reacted to an Education MN proposal to have teachers with alternative licenses spend 90 days supervised by a licensed teacher by saying it sounded like “a teacher Gestapo”. She was not sure “why we need that Gestapo at work”. That sounds more like hate..or being clueless about the actual Gestapo….or both.

    • Fred

      We should hate our public schools. Compare the performance and cost of public schools to other countries’ performance. It’s pretty poor. Take Baltimore, for example. They have close to the highest per pupil funding in the world. What are we getting for that money?

  • Fred

    If universal pre-k is so important to the governor why has he already dropped his request for it and switched to spending demands? I think it’s more that he just can’t stand to see the surplus unspent and possibly being returned to its rightful owners.