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Early ed is hot at the Capitol, but with a rift: Focus on all kids or at-risk kids?

The DFL proposals echo an Obama administration call for universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Following a dozen years of painstaking groundwork by its advocates, early childhood education is finally a marquee item on Minnesota’s political agenda.

There is a surplus of at least $1 billion on the table. Gov. Mark Dayton and his Capitol partisans have declared education their top priority when it comes to spending it and preschoolers the first kids in line.

So how come it seems clear that before the session’s over someone’s going to end up stuffed into the business end of a Diaper Genie?

It’s not the GOP control of the state House of Representatives. Fresh on the heels of a midterm where education was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about, Republicans seem poised to play along. Incredibly, their beef du jour with the governor is not doing more to make up for the education funding shortfalls of years past.

Universal or targeted?

A broad swath of the state’s early-ed community would like to pump $250 million into a system designed to help the steer the poorest families to programs that have proven they prepare kids for kindergarten. Right now there’s only enough money to serve one in 10 eligible kids.

Gov. Mark Dayton and a number of DFL lawmakers, including the Senate Majority Caucus, would prefer to create universal, public-school-based preschool for all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. The proposals on the table also direct modest funds to Head Start and other pre-K efforts, but do not add to the scholarship fund.

The DFL proposals echo an Obama administration call [PDF] for universal preschool for 4-year-olds, although the version under discussion in Congress and at the U.S. Department of Education would not be limited to programs run by mainline school districts.

Lost on no one is that what’s being determined is how hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent year after year going forward. The philosophical divide is driving a wedge between members of the education community who are typically allies.

Although the scholarships have not been a priority in Dayton’s previous budgets, the governor took pains during his first biennium to enshrine the approach structurally in state law. During the second, he turned the taps enough to get the system moving — something early-ed advocates read as a sign that when money became available it would come their way.

Current system earned kudos

With incentives for providers to invest in quality and a clear means for parents to find good programs, the system earned Minnesota a $45 million Race to the Top grant. Other states and cities are copying the approach.

So why shift tacks now?

“I personally have not heard a direct answer to it,” said Frank Forsberg, a senior vice president at the Greater Twin Cities United Way and chair of the executive committee of the group behind the scholarship push, MinneMinds. “It could either be a flat-out change of belief or pressures coming to bear.”

Frank Forsberg
Frank Forsberg

That’s the closest anyone in the early-ed community will come to noting that Dayton’s $109 million proposal would essentially establish a 14th grade in Minnesota schools, which translates to lots of good jobs for members of Education Minnesota. Universal school-based pre-K is the top item on the teacher union’s 2015 legislative wish list.

Indeed, a state survey of the scholarship program conducted last month shows that of the more than 4,700 scholarships awarded to date, 800 have been used to fund preschool slots in Head Start and 2,200 at district schools.

A short history lesson is in order. In 2003, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashed state child-care funding — then viewed almost exclusively as subsidies to allow poor mothers to work — to the bone. If the pre-K community wanted what he viewed as welfare back, they would have to prove it was a good use of tax dollars, he said.

The scholarship approach emerges

Using money ponied up by a coalition of civil, philanthropic and business leaders, early-ed advocates set about first defining high quality and then measuring its outcomes in terms of kindergarten readiness. Research by Minnesota economist Art Rolnick and others showed that public dollars spent getting poor children into good programs had a return of 16 to one.

Looking at the combined research, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation concluded that the best way to increase both the number of quality programs and the poor children who could attend was to make scholarships available. The higher a program’s rating, the higher the scholarship a family could use there.

The scholarships are separate from the state’s traditional child-care subsidy program. Neither pays the full cost of attendance at many programs. Part of the idea was to bridge the gap so low-income families were not forced to choose the least expensive options.

Results from a three-year pilot program paid for by the foundation showed the program worked, and during Dayton’s first year in office it started out with strong bipartisan support at the statehouse. Nonetheless it died a middle-of-the-night death after a group with ties to former Rep. Michele Bachmann claimed it would literally create a “nanny state.” After the close of the 2011 session, Dayton used his executive powers to turn the pilot into an ongoing statewide program.

Two years later, with the state eeking its way out of debt, the legislature appropriated $20 million a year to add to the tiny existing scholarship fund. During the process, not only were school-based programs and Head Start programs made eligible for the funds, they were given an automatic top-quality rating without having to demonstrate efficacy.

Money started flowing in '13

In the fall of 2013, the money began going to eligible families. It wasn’t nearly enough, though. Forsberg estimates that the $250 million MinneMinds would like to see appropriated this year would eliminate the waiting list for 3- and 4-year-olds in all types of pre-K — private and public. Scholarships for younger children could be added as the system begins to pay dividends, he said.

In addition to disappointment that the governor does not envision funding more scholarships, Forsberg sees other issues with the universal school-based pre-K proposal.

Gov. Mark Dayton
Office of the Governor
Gov. Mark Dayton

Dayton’s version would only reimburse districts, which would have to opt in, for half a day for each 4-year-old but require schools to offer a full day. The version introduced by Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul and Sen. John Hoffman of Champlin, both DFLers, would pay for a full day.

A full school day, of course, means before and after care for many families, so the proposal would not eliminate day-care bills, Forsberg continued. And it could hurt child-care centers and home-based day care programs, which would have to make space for 4-year-olds for fewer paid hours.

Also it might also hurt some stand-alone programs’ bottom lines. Because older preschoolers have higher staff-to-child ratios, their tuition often helps to offset the cost of caring for infants, which require much lower ratios.

And finally, many school districts are still struggling to find space to accommodate the shift to universal all-day kindergarten. Murphy’s and Hoffman’s bills allow districts to lease space for pre-K.

The partial-day funding is a big obstacle, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. But otherwise Twin Cities schools likely favor the governor’s proposal.

“Most districts have been working to expand [pre-K] in recent years with very minimal state dollars,” he said. “Students who go through show just phenomenal results.”

Dayton and DFL lawmakers stress that districts can ease some of the hurdles by phasing in universal pre-K. But Croonquist says it would be hard for a district to not offer full-day preschool if it meant it might lose students to a neighboring district.

Cost-effectiveness issue

Finally, there is disagreement about which system is most cost-effective, with Rolnick insisting there is evidence child-care centers and home-based programs win out and Croonquist insisting schools are less expensive for the state.

Croonquist wishes the pre-K discussion didn’t have either-or overtones. “If it’s framed that way from the start it’s unfortunate,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

MinneMinds’ concerns aside, the measure’s legislative authors don’t see it as one or the other. “The governor has proposed a diverse delivery system,” said Murphy. “This is really important for families across Minnesota at all income levels.”

Which might in the end be the point.

So what will happen? Good question. There’s no shortage of DFL lawmakers who are invested in the welfare of the scholarship system in both chambers, and the House in particular is likely to have a hard time both with the politics and the cost.

This one may get duked out in conference committee where the Senate’s wish list — heavy on new money spent in traditional ways — and the House’s more reform-oriented agenda likely will be ironed out.

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Comments (7)

Grownups needed

Before this devolves into a legislative catfight…

We can – and should – ignore Mrs. Bachmann, who’s proved repeatedly that a) she doesn’t know what she’s talking about; and b) she’s often a liar as a result.

School-based and Head Start programs should have to earn their rating, just like other programs. A “top-quality” rating, whatever it involves, should never be automatic.

Requiring schools to offer a full day while reimbursing only half a day is classic “bait-and-switch,” or if you prefer government-speak, a sizable unfunded mandate. It should not be allowed.

I’m very much with Scott Croonquist – the issue shouldn’t be, and doesn’t have to be, phrased and approached in terms of either-or. Whether it’s school-based or child-care-center/home-based is far less important than establishing quality preschool programs for as many kids as possible.

Finally, speaking as a retired teacher and practicing grandparent, the issue of jobs is similarly far less important to me than providing high-quality Pre-K experiences for as many kids as possible. Sure, there will be jobs, but nothing I've read suggests that that's the primary motivation for the program, so jumping on the fact that, yes, jobs will be created as a result, is disingenuous.

Amanda Reinick's points below are well-taken. If Pre-K is as important as we say it is, then both licensure and a reasonable means of achieving it will require some thoughtful analysis and action. It makes no sense to require a license to teach middle-school math, but not Pre-K, and if Early Childhood becomes a recognized major and field of its own, some means of establishing and retaining a degree of quality in the skills and knowledge base of practitioners seems necessary, as well. Doing so without bankrupting those who want to become those practitioners is also a worthy goal. Here's another case where – to me – it makes sense to provide financial incentives for people to take on the task of Pre-K education. Loan forgiveness – a certain percentage per year, for example – for each year spent in that professional niche seems a reasonable approach, at least for those who've needed to borrow in order to be licensed in the field. As Reinick suggests, there are still issued that ought to be examined and thought about before we jump in with both feet.

Where do you put them all?

Changing from half-day kindergarten to full day kindergarten added approximately 30,000 child-year equivalents to Minnesota schools. Universal preschool will add 60,000 more students. If you assume 16 square feet per child that's an additional million square feet of classroom space needed for preschool.

quid pro quo

"Dayton’s $109 million proposal would essentially establish a 14th grade in Minnesota schools, which translates to lots of good jobs for members of Education Minnesota. Universal school-based pre-K is the top item on the teacher union’s 2015 legislative wish list."

Oh, those evil teachers!

There is no way they could be motivated by what is good for the children, is there?

Proof is in Actions

Let the Principals, Teachers, and other Public employees give up their employment contracts and seniority based compensation and job security, then I will believe they are dedicated to doing what is best for the students. Then and only then will the most productive Teachers be in the correct classrooms and correctly compensated.

By the way, I don't think Teachers are evil. I think most of them are great people trapped in a bad system. The older "pro-union" Teachers control the negotiations and therefore negotiate for higher pay and security for people like themselves, therefore leaving less for the younger Teachers.

Universal Pre K bill

This issue was not brought up in the article. The current language in the bill requires teachers to have an early childhood license. There is no stand alone early childhood license in the state of MN. The early childhood license is tied to an elementary teaching license. Teachers currently working in early childhood positions in school districts in MN may not meet the criteria because they do not have a teaching license.. However, they have gone to school with a focus in early childhood education. A degree in early childhood education does not necessarily mean you have a teaching license. Many early childhood teachers do not hold a license. Going back to school to meet the current requirements for a MN teaching license could take up to 5 years. It takes a full school year of student teaching to meet early childhood and elementary Ed requirements. We are all aware of the expense of college, and early childhood workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the state. Also, many early childhood workers currently employed by school districts are not under the teacher's contract. School districts could open these positions to current elementary teachers because they are under the current contract. Many early childhood teachers would have to wait until elementary teachers were placed first, and then they would have to reapply for their positions. I have taught early childhood for 16 years for private companies and school distructs. I am ecstatic that early education is at the forefront of the conversation at the capital. I just think there are many more issues that need to be discussed before it moves forward. Teacher licensing is an important one

Head Start

I think that there is often confusion on how Head Start obtains its four star rating. Head Start and Child Care Centers with National Accreditation are in a fast track of Parent Aware rating due to the intense scrutiny we receive during our review process. Head Start in fact has over 1700 Performance Standards that they must remain in compliance with in order to maintain funding. In order to maintain a four star rating the fast track programs provide both proof of successful completion of a national review as well as training records of all current teachers ensuring that they have the appropriate training in education and child assessment. For both Child Care and Head Start these are much higher expectations than the standard Parent Aware rating.

Head Start goes way beyond the four star requirements with years of outcome documentation that does not exist in any other early childhood settings. In addition Head Start engages parents and ensure that the curriculum is expanded to the home setting. Head Start parents have authentic decision making authority at all programs allowing for a system that empowers parents in their child's education and has lead to strong family school bonds that leads to trust among parents and a lack of disparities in outcomes when looking at ethnicity and language. Head Start children enter kindergarten at a significantly higher level than all of their age peers regardless of socio-economic status. This has been well documented with the only concerns coming in that by third grade these gains are lost. Rather than blaming Head Start for this loss of gain it would best serve children to find out how the K-3 system could better leverage this Head Start. It should also be noted that this loss of gain is not evident among African American/Black children, a population that Minnesota's school system has continuously struggled to serve effectively.

Head Start has spent 50 years as a laboratory for early childhood. Improving each year to best serve the specific population they have been entrusted to serve, children living in poverty. To take children out of this system into an unproven system (one that consistently has failed our children of color and American Indian children) is a perplexing proposal.

If the true goal is to provide success for young children the research would show the need for a mixed delivery system. One that ensures Head Start services for all children at or below the Federal Poverty system, maintains high quality child care and provides a public pre-school experience for children who have not had access to existing high quality care. This would be the most successful universal pre-K.