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.
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.
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.