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All-day kindergarten versus pre-K is a false choice

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With up to 90 percent of brain development happening before kindergarten, the pre-K years are a critical time to have children in stimulating learning environments.

At the Capitol, legislators are asking this question:  “Which should we fund, all-day kindergarten (ADK) or pre-kindergarten early education?”

Tim Penny
Tim Penny

That strikes me as kind of like asking, “Which should we fund, fifth grade or sixth grade?” The answer seems obvious. Both. 

Gov. Mark Dayton has struck a sensible balance in his budget by proposing resources for pre-K and ADK. Rather than falling into a divisive debate, advocates for education should rally around the governor’s approach.

Learning happens at a rapid rate, and each grade builds on another. Sixth grade builds on fifth grade – and kindergarten builds on preschool learning.

With up to 90 percent of brain development happening before kindergarten, the pre-K years are a critical time to have children in stimulating learning environments. But currently, Minnesota isn’t doing well on the pre-K front. Almost half of Minnesota children are arriving in kindergarten behind, and we’re seeing that too many who start behind never catch up. When they don’t catch up, taxpayers pay the price through higher costs related to special education, social services, law enforcement, income supports, prisons and more. 

Strong return on investment

Economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald have long studied the return on public investments. Specifically, they have found that every $1 invested in moving low-income children into high-quality early education produces $16 in societal benefits, such as reducing the need for future government expenses on the types of services mentioned earlier. Their conclusion: Pre-K early education is arguably the single best public investment taxpayers can make.

Investing in pre-K is critically important for improving our K-12 system of education. We can get better results from our $7 billion annual investment in K-12 education if we first invest a tiny fraction – just $0.21 billion per year – in high quality pre-K early education. With that relatively small increase in our investment, we could move more than 35,000 low-income Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds off of waiting lists into high-quality pre-K early education.

Need requirement for high quality

To get the results we seek, we must insist, as does Gov. Dayton, that tax dollars only be invested in high quality providers who are Parent Aware Rated (meaning they are using the best practices for preparing children for kindergarten). A recent survey found that 76 percent of Minnesotans agree with this requirement.

So, let’s not pit pre-K against all-day kindergarten. I agree with Gov. Dayton. We need investment in high-quality education at both the pre-K and kindergarten levels.

Tim Penny is president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation and a former member of Congress.

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