Others’ opinion: Maintain Minnesota’s investment in its youngest learners

Published 8:20 am Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Though both DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican majority lawmakers acknowledge the importance of early education, differences persist. This year, the governor wants a $50-million-plus one-time commitment to prekindergarten made permanent. Lawmakers from the other side of the aisle say that decision is best made next year by a new governor and the 2019 Legislature.

That’s not ideal. Extending the program by allocating $57 million in the state’s next biennial budget would allow families and school districts to plan, especially in greater Minnesota communities where preschool education needs to be expanded. The $50 million allocation made by the 2017 Legislature only begins to cover the 4-year-olds in Minnesota who most need child care and preschool opportunities.

The Star Tribune Editorial Board has also argued that state support for early education, whether attached to traditional K-12 schools or for scholarships to quality preschools — should first be targeted to the neediest children. That cohort of kids includes youngsters from all corners the state.

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Republican leaders point out that current funding is in place this school year and that it will continue for 2018-19. In their view, the 2019 Legislature and new governor should decide the fate of the funding as they put together the next biennial budget. However, if lawmakers really believe in supporting early education, they should show it now.

When the 2017 Legislature agreed to the one-time funding for voluntary, school-based early education and school readiness programs, the total number of children enrolled grew to 6,100 in 109 districts. Yet should that support end in 2019, some 4,000 kids in 59 districts could be denied access to the programs. And many of those districts are in areas of the state that lack quality child care care options, making it even more critical to maintain their school-based programs.

Minnesota has invested a total of $262 million in early learning opportunities during the past several years, including funding for all-day kindergarten, early learning scholarships and voluntary prekindergarten. Lawmakers should build upon the start they’ve made, not take funding away. From the current level of support, they should — at the very least — offer more opportunities to the Minnesota preschoolers who need it most. Much of the research, including that done by Humphrey School of Public Affairs economist Art Rolnick, supports the value of quality early education.

Throughout his tenure, Dayton has made universal, state-supported preschool a pillar of his education agenda. He understandably wants the gains made to last after he leaves office early next year. According to a 2016 National Institute for Early Education Research report, 43 states (plus the District of Columbia and Guam) now provide some level of publicly funded preschool. That includes a number of GOP-dominated states that offer universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Even though they differ about the best ways to advance early learning, the governor and Legislature should unite this year to maintain the start Minnesota has made to support its youngest learners.