Gov. Mark Dayton announced on the Chad Hartman Show on WCCO on Feb. 23 that universal pre-K was his No. 1 priority in the upcoming legislative session. He said he will hold the tax bill hostage until he gets his way. Echoing President Barack Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton, Dayton is demanding that all of Minnesota’s 4-year-olds be sent to school.
Not incidentally, universal pre-K is expected to produce at least 3,000 new union jobs (teachers for the 47,000 4-year-olds across the state). That would bring roughly $3 million in annual dues to teachers unions, which are one of the biggest spenders in state and local elections. If you go to the Education Minnesota home page, you will find the push for pre-K and an endorsement for candidate Hillary Clinton.
Dayton also said he wants new child-care initiatives from “birth to age three.” Yikes! That used to be called parenting. It is interesting how he talks about the value of our children to the state; our kids are future “workers” who will make the state great, and so on. It is as if our kids are being prepared to serve the state rather than the other way around.
While the demand for pre-K came out of nowhere last session, and resulted in a special session so an education bill could pass in 2015, Dayton has led the way for child-care providers to be unionized by AFSCME since he got into office. That union campaign failed on March 1 when child-care providers voted decisively against unionization. Providers opposed to joining AFSCME have told me they are convinced that Dayton wants to put them out of business to create demand for universal pre-K and other state programs.
Decline in the number of providers
Since Dayton began the campaign to unionize child-care providers in 2011, the number of providers in the state has plummeted. According to DHS data, the number of licensed providers has fallen from 11,697 in 2010 to 9,231 in 2015. The drop has been even greater among providers who care for kids in the “CCAP” or Child Care Assistance Program for low-income kids.These are the very kids we worry most about.
Citing the achievement gap and the needs of employers, Dayton continues to push for universal pre-K even though there is scant evidence that this is good for the majority of children — and there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Katharine B. Stevens is a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), specializing in early childhood education. Last year she wrote an article for U.S. News, “Why Minnesota Doesn’t Need Universal Preschool.” She noted that Dayton is using Minnesota’s massive achievement gap among mostly poor, minority children to send all of our kids to school at age 4.
The need isn’t universal
Dayton’s one-size-fits-all approach threatens to rob existing programs aimed at disadvantaged kids who may really need and benefit from that extra attention and tender care. Art Rolnick has done a great job of making the case that we need to protect early learning scholarships and funding streams to offer high quality intervention, but only for a small group of Minnesota’s kids. This is not a “universal” need, yet politicians all over the nation are demanding this major expansion of the public school mission.
The Atlantic offers an answer to the question, “So why the push for universal pre-K?” The article makes the case against the idea, though it concludes that once you hook the middle class on a new program, you can get the program for poor kids, too. Case in point: All-day kindergarten has taken off in Minnesota as working parents shift their kids to school instead of paying for child care. Half-day kindergarten is now discouraged and will probably cease to exist. The parents in my neighborhood did not want all-day kindergarten, but it has quickly become the new standard. Parents feel they are out of step with their school community and failing to prepare their kids for first grade if they keep them closer to home or use a church-based nursery school for a few hours a day. I can see that happening with pre-K if the state taxpayer picks up the tab.
As a mom, I predict that when (most) children are pushed out into the noisy world of school and adults too soon, they will be exhausted and suffer in the long run. I like the Finnish model where they send kids to school at age 6 or 7. I do not think it is an anomaly that the Finns kick the world’s behind in achievement tests. My daughter found this article in The Atlantic: “The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergartners of Finland.” My kids have vowed to raise my (future) grandkids with the books, naps, art, nursery school and cookies model even if at great financial sacrifice because those were joyful days of their childhood. My approach prepared them well for school and life. Yes, yes, I know we were fortunate to have that option, but it was not just luck. It was a conscious choice — and a well-planned choice, at that.
The state as parent
My colleague Mitch Pearlstein has written poignantly for decades on the high price we pay when we fail to finish school, get a job, get married and then raise kids who can thrive in this rough and tumble world. When we ignore that simple formula for success, we invite the state to peer over our shoulder, stepping into the role of parent, provider and educator.
Another colleague, Katherine Kersten, has studied the studies that are cited to persuade Minnesota’s lawmakers to expand the state even further into territory traditionally left to parents, extended family, and faith-based programs. Here is what she has found: “In the end, there’s only one reliable way to shrink the learning gap. That’s to ensure — somehow — that far more low-income boys and girls come from homes with two dedicated parents who give them the love and support they need to succeed in school. Without a cultural sea change of that kind, our learning gap is likely to bedevil us for a long time to come.”
Katherine B. Stevens from AEI has a message for lawmakers who want to do right by Minnesota’s children. Noting the abject failure of public schools in addressing the achievement gap, she writes that “(a)warding an exclusive pre-K contract to a single provider with such a weak track record in serving disadvantaged children is like a mail-order business giving an exclusive shipping contract to a company that loses half the packages.”
Focus on at-risk kids
Dayton threw the 2015 session into chaos with his demand for universal pre-K, but lawmakers rejected the idea and kept the focus on the kids who need the most help. AEI’s Stevens wrote: “The agreed-on 52 percent budget increase for early childhood reflects an impressive commitment to helping the state’s at-risk kids. And Minnesota’s innovative, sensible approach – targeting disadvantaged children from birth to the age of 5 through a decentralized, quality-based, choice-driven system – provides a valuable model for other states now scaling up efforts to ensure the well-being of young children.”
During the upcoming 2016 bonding session, Dayton may hold the tax bill hostage until he turns blue in the face. But taxes and universal pre-K are unrelated policy issues, and except to the extent that they affect the state budget, should be weighed on their individual merit during the upcoming budget session in 2017.
Come what may, let’s keep our 4-year-olds off the collective bargaining table.
Kim Crockett is vice president of Center of the American Experiment and director of the Employee Freedom Project.
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