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Early-ed advocates look at Dayton’s preschool plan and wonder: Why?

Office of the Governor
In the wake of recent news that the budget surplus is twice the original forecast, Gov. Mark Dayton doubled down on his proposal to fund universal public preschool for all Minnesota 4-year-olds.

It was all so simple back when there was no money.

Never mind consensus that the achievement gap is best closed before a child even starts school, four years ago preschoolers were without an institutional home in Minnesota’s state apparatus. The outgoing governor had done a remarkably thorough job of gutting public support, and waiting lists were thousands deep.

There was no legislative committee regularly considering early childhood policy. One state agency, the Department of Human Services, dealt with pre-K as a welfare issue — day-care subsidies to allow impoverished parents to work. The Department of Education, meanwhile, concerned itself with school readiness.

And in the face of ideological attacks from those who saw early ed as the literal lynchpin of a nanny state, advocates were united in trying to get pre-K an official seat at the table.

Funny how $2 billion can come between even the closest of allies.

Dayton fans flames of division

In the wake of recent news that the budget surplus is twice the original forecast, Gov. Mark Dayton doubled down on his proposal to fund universal public preschool for all Minnesota 4-year-olds.

In doing so, he fanned the flames of what has become one of the most divisive issues of the 2015 legislative session: how best to prepare disadvantaged kids for kindergarten and beyond.

Dayton’s revised budget calls for spending $1.25 billion over the next two budget cycles (four years) on universal pre-K; $342M in the first and $916M in the second. It would reach middle-class kids whose families are not eligible for state subsidies yet can’t afford quality care.

Depending how you do the math, however, it would free up just $28 million to bolster a proven system many early ed advocates say will do a better job of reaching impoverished kids. That level of funding may be double what it is right now, but it would leave some 70,000 kids aged birth to 3 behind, they add.

Plus, it would mark a radical departure from what many had believed was a long-term plan.

Theories abound

Theories about the governor’s seeming about-face run the gamut from speculation that the DFL is amassing bargaining chips to be used in conference committee, where radically different state House and Senate education packages will be hammered into one, to talk that Dayton has been talking about his political legacy.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, meanwhile, says she is disappointed that the advocates don’t recognize what she views as an unprecedented opportunity.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius
Ed Commissioner Brenda Cassellius

“I’m super-perplexed we’re even having a debate,” Cassellius said Thursday. “For four years we’ve been fighting to have pre-K on the agenda. We may not ever have this opportunity again to reach this many kids. We have the opportunity to reach 57,000 kids.”

Until Dayton’s proposal, there had been broad agreement that a system that provides state scholarships to impoverished kids and gives them incentives to use the money at high-quality programs was a terrific return on the taxpayers’ investment.

The approach earned national headlines when the Obama administration awarded Minnesota a $45 million Race to the Top early ed grant aimed at expanding the number of quality programs where scholarships could be used.

Critics of the governor’s proposal have suggested that any about-face might be motivated by a desire to leave a legacy. How many state chiefs, they ask, have dubbed themselves “the education governor” as their terms come to an end?

Middle-class appeal

And just as universal all-day kindergarten was a big political win for the DFL, universal preschool has broad middle-class appeal and is easier to communicate than the Parent Aware ratings system.

Duane Benson
Duane Benson

“It’s very appealing to side with the middle class,” notes former Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson. “Governors and legacies have always been an interesting mix. They are always struck with it.”

Benson was head of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), a civic partnership that researched and tested an approach that directs scholarships to high quality programs. Participants in MELF’s four-year pilot program were significantly better prepared for school than their similarly situated peers.

Benson recalls trying to engage gubernatorial candidates on the topic in 2010. Interest among Dayton’s opponents varied, he says, “but Mark seemed really locked in on it.” Unlike the others, Dayton had read the research behind the idea.

Early Dayton support

After his election, Dayton was deliberate in first end-running efforts by the religious right to kill the program and established an Office of Early Learning to work with other state agencies involved in pre-K.

Later, when a budget deficit had been plugged, he turned the taps on slowly. Currently Minnesota earmarks $28 million a year for scholarships — enough to meet a fraction of the need.

At the very end of the process of appropriating that money two years ago, two changes were made that further complicated matters. First, the money was divided into two pots to be distributed according to the type of program where it would be spent. Half was directed to public schools and Head Start programs, which were automatically given the highest quality rating.

And scholarships were capped at $5,000 per child per year, something Cassellius insisted on because she didn’t feel that private-sector programs should get more money than public schools.

Expectations of a big boost

So there was an expectation that with the state’s coffers finally flush, the Parent Aware ratings system and associated scholarships would receive a dramatic boost. Their goal for the current biennium was for enough funding to provide scholarships to all eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, with younger kids to be added as money became available.

But when Dayton released his proposed budget in late January there was $469 million for universal preschool as well as nearly $100 million to eliminate the Head Start waitlist, reduce the waitlist for the old-fashioned state subsidies that preceded the scholarships and to help providers attain the quality rating that would attract the scholarships.

Early ed advocates had been cautiously optimistic that if there was additional revenue in the March budget forecast, Minnesota could afford new funding for both scholarships and more school-based programs. But Dayton instead doubled the amount to be directed to universal public school for 4-year-olds.

‘It is a terrible idea’

The intention is noble but the approach is misguided, counter proponents of the scholarship approach, including Karen Cadigan, the first director of Minnesota’s four-year-old Office of Early Learning who now works as an early ed specialist for the Bloomington and Richfield school districts.

“Is it a good idea? Is it an innovation that has gotten national attention? Is it what we’ve been working towards?” Cadigan asks. “No. In fact it is a terrible idea.”

Her largest concern is that universal preschool would not allow school districts the flexibility to meet the varied needs of 4-year-olds whose development may be all over the map.

The programming contemplated by the governor would consist of 230 five-hour days — a full school day that would require the hiring of more full-time licensed teachers.

Concern over costs

Cadigan believes it would cost more than Dayton and Cassellius have said it would. Because preschoolers need lower student-teacher ratios, classes would need a second adult besides the licensed teacher. And districts would lose revenue from programs that currently provide revenue that offsets those costs.

Universal preschool would be twice as intensive as what the districts are now doing to get excellent results. Some 84 percent of kids in Bloomington and Richfield who participate in 2½-hour days are ready for kindergarten, compared with half their peers.

And there are 500 4-year-olds who participate in half-day Early Childhood Family Education programming three days a week, something the districts wouldn’t be able to provide within the new structure.

Nor would it meet the needs of the neediest children. In Bloomington, about 80 preschoolers a year are behind; 80 percent of their families are clients of county services. “What we want to do with those kids is create something more targeted,” says Cadigan.

Cassellius: Districts will have discretion

Cassellius disagrees. She says districts will have a great deal of discretion over what preschool looks like. They may contract with community partners, tap local parks systems or locate within schools.

“School-based doesn’t mean bricks and mortar anymore,” she says. “It’s tough to find a care provider in the Twin Cities because they are full and in rural Minnesota because they don’t exist.”

So why not steer more of the surplus to scholarships? “It’s been difficult to scale the infrastructure around the state,” says Cassellius. “We can’t build it out unless we lower the quality. And we already had to lower the quality to incent folks in.”

Scholarship proponents shriek at the notion that quality has been lowered anywhere. Because many communities did not start out with child care facilities that qualified for the highest ratings, scholarship rates were raised for tuition at programs that were in the process of working to meet the new higher standards.

Scholarship money began flowing in late 2013. Today there are almost 1,900 rated programs, according to Cassellius. Scholarship proponents expect there will be 3,000 by the end of the year.

Rolnick’s concerns

Economist Art Rolnick, whose research made the original case that early ed is a good investment of public money, is one of those most upset by the shift. He says the governor’s argument is a political one, and not backed by research: “My concern is that we will do [universal pre-K] and say we’re done.”

Why shut families out of top-rated early ed programs because they are not located in district schools staffed by licensed teachers, Rolnick asks.

Art Rolnick

There is $8 million in Dayton’s budget for Parent Aware to continue building provider capacity, Cassellius notes.

“We’re committed to scaling it out, we’re committed to building it, but it’s going to take time,” she says. “Let’s build back and give every dollar we can to 0-3 in every budget biennium going forward.”

“What problem are we solving?” he asks. “If they say the problem is the achievement gap then we’re done.”

Cassellius does in fact say the problem being resolved is the achievement gap, and the reason to fix it by instituting universal preschool is because the surplus offers a historic opportunity. Create that, and two years from now, when the next budget is drawn up, new money can be directed to the scholarships.

‘Definition … has been switched’

Cadigan disagrees. “The definition of the problem has been switched somehow,” she says. “It’s not ‘How do we close the achievement gap’ to ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if all 4-year-olds could go to their neighborhood schools.’ It’s not a free choice. That’s the thing that’s goofy about it.”

She echoes Benson’s belief that Dayton doesn’t understand the implications of turning away from his own investment in the Parent Aware system.

“To go from this plan that was innovative and engaged the public and private sectors and gave parents lots of choices to a single year — and not just that but a single size?” asks Cadigan. “How do we help the governor help himself to create a legacy that really counts?”

Benson agrees. “I just hope that we don’t lose track of what we want to do,” he says. “I admire the governor — he’s got some balls, pardon the expression. I just hope he doesn’t fall on his sword to just give everyone something.

“What he really wants, I suspect, is something he’s not gonna get that way. He’s gonna get it by investing in quality.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the time frame in which Dayton’s budget would spend $1.25 billion on universal pre-K.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/26/2015 - 10:54 am.

    Pre-K programming has enjoyed a long and generous investment in Minnesota. What the data shows is that it does help some kids into the third year of school, and then everything collapses by grade 6.

    Obviously, it’s another case where a pile of cash is all that’s needed. Dayton has it nailed, as usual.

  2. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 03/26/2015 - 11:39 am.

    As pointed out recently (a seemingly annual commentary from a local economist) when discussing the surplus, because of inflation bias (incorporated by the Leg many years ago as a budget balancing trick), we may not really have a $2 Billion surplus (actually the commonly figure is over $100 Million less than that and rounded usually just rounded up to $1.9 Billion). When you include inflation on the spending side, the current projected surplus is well under $1 Billion.

    If we are planning to do stuff with $2 Billion, we better make $1 Billion of that spending contingent on the revenue actually materializing.

    Perhaps instead of fighting over what do do with projected revenue, the governor should ask the Leg to fix the budget forecasting so that we have a more accurate idea of what that revenue will be.

  3. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 03/26/2015 - 12:58 pm.

    Is there a white paper?

    One of the things that has puzzled me about the Dayton Administration given that people who know the governor routinely describe him as an authentic policy wonk is why major proposals such as this one to dramatically expand programs for 4 year-olds are rarely supported by white papers or policy speeches or the other basic building blocks of making a case for change. If we knew what evidence or what theory of action were guiding the governor’s recommendations, we could consider and then support or oppose them in a much more thoughtful way. Maybe those materials have been produced and released and I have just missed them, but I’m kind of a policy wonk myself so I usually look for them but to no avail on this issue and many others.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/26/2015 - 01:11 pm.


    This is too complicated an issue for a 5-minute analysis, but one thing that does occur to me, based on careful and frequent observation of a pair of grandchildren, one of whom is only 7 months removed from preschool, the other only 3-1/2, is that we’ve entered the realm of the short attention span and the nap. In other words, I’m not convinced that a full, 5-hour day for a year is necessarily the best way to prepare kids for 12 or 13 years of full-on, formal education. My personal bias is that play is, or should be, the full-time job of every 3-year-old, and maybe every 4-year-old as well, rather than 20 minutes allotted before lunch and another 20 minutes after lunch.

    And that still leaves open the question of nap time. I read articles saying it’s no longer necessary after about age 2, and other articles insisting that its usefulness never really goes away, especially among pre-adolescent kids. I can’t speak for other parents and/or relatives of little kids, but my own grandchildren are quite a bit less pleasant if they don’t get an opportunity to “power down” for a while in the afternoon. I’m thinking a full-day program is going to have to make an allowance for naps, which leaves me wondering about the willingness of taxpayers to pay for that.

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/26/2015 - 01:31 pm.

    The Spending Race

    It seems this has become a race among members of the same team, and less against the other. Isn’t this rather like shipmates finding the treasure cave, keeping watch for those who might pull their daggers? And all the while they argue over dividing the plunder before a rock slide seals the cavern.

    MONEY MONEY MONEY (with apology to ABBA)

  6. Submitted by Michael Hess on 03/26/2015 - 03:45 pm.

    there’s a pattern here

    Second time in a row the Governor has interjected his personal preferred approach in preference to the experts- first testing reduction now early ed. Perhaps he thinks his personal experience as a teacher qualifies him to disregard expert opinions?

    I am also concerned the long terms costs of transportation, additional classrooms etc… Have not been thought through with his proposal to expand the definition of public school a year.

    The targeted approach for kids who are at risk seems to make a lot of sebsense.

  7. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/26/2015 - 03:55 pm.

    Dayton is right

    We need to make sure all kids get the most of out school. Pre-K education doesn’t just help the disadvantaged economically but all kids, because being born into a higher income family doesn’t prepare kids for the rough and tumble of school. Some kids develop more slowly and those students also need a head start .

    Given that the Republican side of the political equation hasn’t even been willing to fully fund Head Start, making it a welfare program rather than a universal education program simply means that its funding source will perpetually be attached. Frankly, our society does not spend a fraction of what it should on children, and this is just the first step in fixing that problems. This is going to opposite direction of Congressional proposals to cut food stamps, cut early education, cut housing subsidies, cut heallth care subsidies. Broad based programs just don’t get attacked the way those that serve the

    And here is another benefit. Many schools offer free breakfast to all children. Why is this? First, doing this doesn’t stigmatize the poor, and kids of all economic levels have breakfast together. Second, there is assurance that in busy middle class households with both parents working, that the kid is not going to be hungry before they get to lunch time, because they skipped breakfast or had too little to eat.

    Kids are all the same. They really don’t need to develop class awareness before they get into school. And creating more opportunities for rich and poor children to interact and understand each other – that can only be beneficial in our divided society.

  8. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/26/2015 - 04:49 pm.

    Talking about freaking out

    Cadagan and Rolnick obviously have a limited experience or knowledge of state politics in a legislative budget year. The DFLs push education spending to the max because they know the Republicans will do the least possible to fund education. Just recall the Pawlenty years of screwing public education to balance the budget without tax hikes. This year funding will settle somewhere in the middle and the key here is to do the best to improve early learning. If Cadagan or Rolnick think that they will get a better deal from the republicans, they need some “early learning classes” more than the kids. When you propose a budget cutting healthcare for the poor what do you expect out of them for education for the poor and now middle class children

  9. Submitted by Tom Knisely on 03/26/2015 - 07:16 pm.

    The answer is simple

    Why did Dayton turn away from an innovative approach and towards the school run system? Simple, unions. If we’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars he’ll insure that the educators who are funded by it are union (Education Minnesota) and the support staff are union too (AFSME). It’s that simple.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 03/26/2015 - 10:26 pm.


      Now that is the most rational comment posted here. This is Dayton’s “go to” move

      I am actually a big fan of early childhood education for unlucky kids. It fascinates me when Conservatives can not see the benefit of getting these children out of their homes as much and as early as possible. The Parents of these children are often irresponsible, incapable and/or negligent,

      Definitely not good role models that are going to successfully encourage the kids to become passionate about learning, hard work, good behavior, etc. We wonder why these kids are challenged in K-12 after 5 years of being conditioned with bad habits, beliefs and attitudes. Besides the fact that their brains do not develop as well with limited experiences and questionable nutrition.

      • Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 03/29/2015 - 10:04 pm.

        Early ed

        There is a good chance that you have just described the reason why these programs will not be effective in the long run. If your life is chaos, you are gonna have to work very hard, as well as have some good luck to escape. Most won’t.

  10. Submitted by Kath Church on 03/27/2015 - 11:17 am.

    Early Ed

    Dear John:

    You obviously don’t run a home daycare or center in a impoverished area. Not all parents that are poor have bad habits and are deadbeats. If you lived up north and new of the great divide from rich to poor you would understand that programs like Parent Aware have dramatically raised the bar for those impoverished children over the last two years. And actually when they come to daycare’s they most likely can qualify for Ccap funds but to get them they have to be working or be in college full time. If their children attend a 3 or 4 year old program in a school district they have to do nothing to earn it. Which in fact makes them more lazy to find a job or go back to school to be re-educated. And in rural areas we don’t have huge centers because one the people up here don’t have the money or disposal income that you have in the metro area and that is also because the population would not stern for those same companies to come this far north because there isn’t millions in it for them. In any system or state there are wasters I agree but to label all low income parents as bad parents is really a generalization that is very unfair and uncalled for.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Carlson on 03/27/2015 - 06:03 pm.

    End Game

    The three-legged stool that determines our state budget starts this biennial dance by positioning itself against the other two legs. This happens every budget year.

    I applaud the Governor and Commissioner Casselius for their courage and their consistent attempts to improve early education in Minnesota. There is no $2 billion surplus since inflation is not factored into the formula. At best there is a billion available for the three-legged stool’s end game. Each leg wants what they want and the opening salvo is designed to get it. I read with interest, comments from those that would benefit from the money going someplace else other than to the Governor’s proposal.

    In the end the Governor will get an increase in early education – it will not be the full amount but it will be a significant help to boost early education and a concrete step in narrowing the achievement gap. The Senate needs a minimum of 3% on the formula or school districts will cut budgets and teachers. The House will continue to want child care scholarships/vouchers to benefit the private sector and at the end of the day are likely to get additional millions. The winner in all of this can be the students of Minnesota if the game is played right.

  12. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 03/31/2015 - 05:36 pm.

    The structure of the program will determine its future

    Every service for the poor is a target of the Republican party. That is why something as beneficial as Head Start is not fully funded in Minnesota – Republicans don’t want to spend the money needed to cover all of the poor children of the state that would benefit from the head start. In fact, the issue is not just disadvantaged children, but all children. If all children benefit from having early childhood education, it should be the standard. However, high income parents who want to home school their pre-school children or keep them in nursery school, if they have the same right to public services, but choose another educational alternative, nothing wrong with that – because everyone is covered. What this doesn’t recognize is the responsibility of parents, relatives, friends and the community to educate their children long before they see a licensed teacher. Why are the so called experts digging in to defend their ideas, rather than looking for a compromise? What is more important – experts getting their way, or all children being ready for kindergarten when they have developed the skills and attributes to be fully successful. This is like a King Solomon situation when two women claim to be the mother – who really cares about the children, or is it some king of dysfunctional power struggle. Dayton has said that all children need pre-school education – isn’t the real debate how that is done for all children. If you just focused on the disadvantaged, we spend too much time debating who is disadvantaged, without really knowing which children will have the greatest struggle. Also, if it is a welfare program rather than a right of all children, the Republicans will cut its funds to pay for things they consider a higher priority, as they do every time if it somewhat thing that advances their interests vs. those of the poor.

  13. Submitted by Mike M on 04/06/2015 - 12:10 pm.

    Dayton’s Payback to Special Interests

    As a conservative I’m offended by many of these posts. I’m all for education and for helping low income familes. What I’m not for is wasting money on programs proven not to work or pandering to special interest groups. And yes this includes Wall Street and banks. Governor Dayton is just trying to play politics with my chlidren. We do NOT need universal, school district run pre-k. There are so many other things to do to work to close the achievement gap. I fully support helping low income families so fund their scholarships as much as possible but do it via a process that works, work with the private providers that have experience in running high quality programs. Do not accept the one-size fits all approach that has become our education system in the state. Casselius is wrong, there is no provision for partnering with private providers plus you’ll run all the high quality private providers out of the market. As a provider we’d be looking to expand our number of locations but with this proposal we’d never expand. Again, this will kill any high quality programs out there and lower quality for every chlid but maybe this is what Dayton wants. One thing is for certain, all children are different and a one size fits all approach will not work for them.

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