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Dayton's Early Learning Council expresses reservations about his pre-K plan

REUTERS/Jim Young
Members of the governor’s Early Learning Council asked Dayton to direct $196 million over the next two years to an existing, underfunded early scholarship system.

Last week the governor’s Early Learning Council, a panel Mark Dayton created when he first took office, expressed reservations about his administration’s proposal to add preschool for 4-year-olds to Minnesota schools.

Instead the group, which includes officials from the state departments of health, human services and education, asked the governor and lawmakers to direct $196 million over the next two years to an existing, underfunded early scholarship system.

Council members also asked for $194 million to expand promising home-visiting programs and to make sure funds targeted for the most fragile children come with maximum flexibility.

Council members don’t oppose school-based pre-K, Chair Barbara Yates of Think Small said Monday. “I think we felt there are items [the governor proposed] that are very difficult to roll out right away to scale,” she said. “We’re trying to improve on the policy of that proposal.”

Suggests pilots, evaluations

As proposed by the governor, universal pre-K in Minnesota “includes a number of untested elements that should be piloted and evaluated prior to statewide implementation,” the council noted in a report sent to Dayton and the Legislature.

The council’s role is as the governor’s early-ed advisory body, an accompanying letter noted: “At times that puts us at odds with certain elements of a proposal. Any disagreement is rooted in our ability to anticipate day to day implications of a policy or investment."

Members of the governor’s council approved the recommendations during a conference call last week after receiving a draft via e-mail. Though it was held on the phone, the meeting was open and two members of the general public joined in. One vote was cast against issuing the recommendations.

It’s typical for employees of state agencies — in this case including Minnesota’s early-learning czar, Melvin Carter — to abstain from taking a vote that would put them at odds with the administration, said Yates.

According to the document, “Innovations that have demonstrated encouraging results and need to be sustained include: Transformation Zones, Minnesota Early Learning Foundation Scholarships, Parent Aware, Invest Early, Seed Communities via Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, and Reading Corps in Licensed Family Child Care.”

Cassellius' disagreement

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius disagreed with many of the council members’ assertions.

“I’d like to know their basis for making some of these statements,” she said. “We know universal pre-K helps all kids. It’s just the common-sense thing to do. Why wouldn’t you do that?”

The point-counterpoint about the evidence shoring up each approach has become a hallmark of the year’s most painful education debate, with Cassellius and Dayton insisting that the $1.9 billion budget surplus gives the state an historic opportunity to do something bold to help all kids. A broad swath of the early-childhood-education community, meanwhile, counters that the system under development for the last decade will focus resources where they are needed most.

The debate has become increasingly painful as one-time allies press their cases in the court of public opinion, swinging research citations and policy prescriptions at one another like gladiators in a ring. Coming from a diverse group appointed by the governor, the recommendations are the sharpest jab from within yet.

Panel discussion from 4-6 p.m.

(Members of the general public who would like to hear the arguments articulated at greater length should RSVP to a free panel discussion today (Tuesday, May 5) that will feature Cassellius and five early-ed experts. The discussion will take place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the Cowles Auditorium at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, 301 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis.)

The novelty of the scholarship approach was one of the reasons Minnesota won a federal Race to the Top early learning grant. Advocates had imagined that when the stimulus dollars stopped flowing the state — recovered from the recession — would take over.

Those federal funds have made a crucial difference over the last two years in the White Earth Nation. A large portion of the $1.1 million federal grant went to fund pre-K scholarships. Two-thirds of scholarship recipients had not previously received any public services.

The federal money dries up next spring. Funding universal pre-K without pumping more money into the scholarship system would endanger efforts like the tribe’s program to combine services for its littlest members, according to Barb Fabre, program director for the White Earth Child Care and Early Childhood Program.

Last year 44 babies were born addicted on the reservation. Drug use is one reason a high percentage of the community’s children are being parented by relatives. Community groups are best positioned to know how to spend state funds, she said.

White Earth example

Fabre cites the case of a girl who was not talking when her grandfather, who was caring for three small children, enrolled her in preschool at 18 months. After four months of quality care, the girl had met her developmental markers.

Barbara Fabre
The McKnight Foundation
Barbara Fabre

“She was talking, she was singing,” said Fabre, who estimates that without preschool the girl would have showed up for kindergarten knowing 2,000 words, versus the 20,000-plus her middle-class peers acquire.

White Earth families with compounding challenges are unlikely to travel off of the reservation to try to win spots in programs not developed and operated by the tribe, Fabre said.

Scholarship-eligible programs in other parts of Greater Minnesota are not growing fast enough to meet needs, Cassellius countered. Nor is she convinced that the research underlying the scholarship approach will hold up outside the metro area.

The governor’s “mixed environment” proposal, in her view, is the most comprehensive approach. The council members who met last week agreed that multiple delivery systems are warranted, but say the state should fund what’s already in place and working.

The recommendations come as state policymakers head into conference committee, where they have just two weeks to iron out sharp division over Dayton’s marquee initiative. So far, neither legislative chamber has thrown its support behind the effort.

Governor, House, Senate proposals

The governor would spend half of his $700 million education budget on school-based pre-K for 4-year-olds. The GOP-led House of Representatives rejected Dayton’s proposal and would increase early-ed scholarships by $30 million.

The Senate would direct $65 million to existing school readiness programming, which many school districts would prefer because they could spend it on the specific needs of their most challenged students. The Senate would increase spending on scholarships by $5 million.

Created in 2011 as part of Dayton’s promise to give early ed a seat at the policy table, the council met by phone on April 30 specifically to address concerns about the current controversies, according to member Art Rolnick. A senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, economist Rolnick has been an ardent supporter of the scholarship approach, which places the state’s neediest kids in gap-closing, high-quality programs.

The Dayton administration has seemed ambivalent about the initiative, both taking creative and bold measures over the last four years to protect it from ideological assaults and yet lobbying for scant funding. With a $1.9 billion surplus forecast, scholarship proponents imagined the 2015 budget cycle would be the year the taps got turned on.

School districts' view

Even the state’s school districts, typically welcoming of any new money, have been vocal in recent weeks in saying that they would prefer the money go to make up for inflationary pressures on the general education fund than to pay for a new program that will have them scrambling for classrooms and licensed teachers.

The proposal has funds to help train and license up to 1,000 new teachers, or relicense existing teachers as pre-K specialists, Cassellius countered Monday.

“There’s a group that’s really steeped in the child-care camp,” she said. “Building this system takes time.”

One of the council members who approved the recommendation, Fabre, disagreed. “Eventually, yes, universal pre-K is terrific. But in Greater Minnesota that’s not going to work,” she said. “We need year-round programs in the community.

“If it weren’t for these programs, these kids are going to show up for kindergarten with a 2,000-word vocabulary,” Fabre continued. “There’s the achievement gap. It’s a no-brainer.”

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Comments (16)

Kindergarten was going to be

Kindergarten was going to be the cure all 60 yrs ago for education, now it is 4 yr olds and pre K school, because kindergarten was not the answer. Next it will be pre-pre K for 3 yr old children. What they are saying about pre K is exactly the same thing they said about Kindergarten.

I am amazed that folks buy the BS that parents can't teach 3 and 4 yr old kids colors and 1+1=2, that is what pre K will do. Having children bonding and learning from their parents at 3 and 4 makes for better adults than throwing them into an expensive day care (pre K) with strangers at that age.

she says,"...

“We know universal pre-K helps all kids. It’s just the common-sense thing to do. Why wouldn’t you do that?”

Says who? Common sense often means don't bother me with the facts. If pre-K helps, then it stands to reason that pre-pre-K helps too. Where is the line? Mandatory in-school Einstein videos for infants? School is and has always been about teaching academic subjects. Preschool, as my kids experienced it, is about social skills more than anything. So you spend a billion on this, demand rigorous teacher standards, inflate the costs and put out of work all the people working in the current preschools associated with churches and other similar places. Economic stability will help the kids of a poor family succeed in school more than anything like this and this is all about giving something to the poor and working poor. Of course it doesn't achieve anything useful but you gave them something, you can call yourself the education governor and your bureaucrats will be happy.

Parents as teachers

Parents can certainly teach their kids basic concepts - if they have the time,energy and motivation. Many don't,and that is not just the low-education, low-income single parent with multiple part-time jobs we are talking about. If parents don't do an adequate job of preparing their kids for school, it is society's loss and it is government's role to intervene early, before permanent damage is done.

It would be OK with me to phase in universal pre-K education, starting with the highest need kids first. I think that it doesn't have to be through a public school, but a high quality nursery school or day care program can do part of the job - just not all of them. The reality is that if kids are not ready for school because we (parents and government) haven't made an adequate investment, we pay the cost of this over a lifetime in terms of lost opportunity and a bigger social safety net.

Republicans just want to cheap out and will be ready to cut programs at the first sign of financial challenge, as they value low taxes more than universal education. Parents want rights, but are less concerned about being accountable. Educators want to create more jobs. School district want more cash. Day cares don't want to lose customers. However, what works best for kids. Giving them all more opportunity, and starting with those that have less to begin with. Let's forget about the adults in the equation.

Broad Brush

In the name being unbiased and sensitive, the politicians usually attack problems with a broad useless brush. I was once talking with District Administrator who wished they had more funding so that they could have longer school years. At which point, being me, I explained that my at or above grade level daughters did not need a longer school year. And that they really need to get the failing kids in school more.

My point is that a huge effort has to be under taken to help the unlucky kids who have parents who are unable or unwilling to get their kids ready for kindergarten. And in some of those households, it would be best to get those kids in a public setting as early and as much as possible.

Between neural path way development, habits / beliefs being set, behaviors / communication methods being ingrained, etc. The sooner you get them in a normal setting the less re-programming will need to be done. And you know how hard it is to break ingrained bad habits...

For a good model, see this link.
http://hcz.org/our-programs/

So... Drop the Universal Pre-K and focus the money on the kids who need the help.

Agree. Very seldom does the

Agree. Very seldom does the one size fits all approach work.

Universal Pre-K

It is curious that the field of early childhood education would oppose funding that would support all children.

Universal and voluntary Pre-K, if done right, would serve all children and all communities.
It will be available in all communities without the creation of another infrastructure, transportation system or complex application.
* It will ensure that all classrooms have good language and behavior models.
* It will be delivered where children are - in Head Start, in child care, in community preschools and will be offered in a continuum of options for parents.
* It will elevate the profession of early childhood education and promote higher wages for all.
* It will be the catalyst for professional development that will move more teachers to degrees.
* It will engage parents in both their child's education and their schools and again, if done right, they will continue to be engaged in their schools which is critical to every child's and every school's success.
* It will save parents money and our community's money in reduced special education costs.
* It will become a part of a larger budget that is sustainable for children.

Again, how an you argue with that? Could there be some special interests lurking in the background?

Just curious

What special interests do you think we would we be with?

I don't think I am part of any special interest group, unless it is that of tax payers working to ensure our tax dollars go to helping the young kids who really need it. Not to middle /upper class families, administrators, bureaucrats, accreditation services, unions, tenured public employees, etc.

Instead of just increasing funding and programs universally, the education folks need to find ways to close the gap. Which means focusing intensely on the kids who need the help.

Just curious

Implementation of the scholarship program created the need for two new infrastructures, one to administer the scholarships and another for rating quality. There is a lot of money involved in the development and the ongoing administration. Those entities now ensconced in the new systems are fearful of losing both their money and their power. Take a look at how the money flows. These two new systems also make applying for scholarships and CCAP duplicitous and more complicated for providers and families. The families that are able to do this have the support of the programs in which they are enrolled to help them through the process. Many families who are not in child care, Head Start or other programs and are our most vulnerable families, don't have that support and are not accessing the programs. They are not getting the help they need without very expensive outreach but they know where their schools are and know how to get their older children enrolled. To enroll their younger ones would be a simple matter. The providers who accept scholarships now also have another set of papers to fill out in order to get their reimbursement. If done right, in Universal Pre-K they could potentially be paid at school district wages with benefits and professional development or have support to serve fewer children without having to answer to multiple agencies. I think we should be involved in the special interest of children and the adults who are providing their care.

Just Curious

Do you have ties to Ed MN? I see you have long history of working in early ed.
http://www.educationminnesota.org/advocacy/at-the-legislature/issue-brie...

Where I am going with this rambling is that it seems to me that you want to funnel the youngsters into the public schools system which is relatively expensive and has a history of questionable success. (especially with the unlucky kids) I think the scholarship program makes better sense, the kids can attend near their home and the dollars go to help the poor kids.

The question is how do we set the "quality rating" system reasonably enough so those small low cost local providers can qualify without spending a fortune on questionable fees, training and curriculum. I mean we are working to help these kids be socially, physically, emotionally and academically ready for Kindergarten, not trying to teach them to read and do math.

Yes.

Yes.

Easy to argue

It's quite easy to argue your position. Currently the public school system in this state realistically spends between $15-$20k per student per 9 months, and I'm sorry to say that system is failing many students (and not because of bad teachers). I've seen many existing pre-k programs in school districts. They'll do very little teaching. The classrooms are filled with blocks, dress up clothes and board games. Please explain to me how this elevates anyone? Compared to many private programs that are teaching these same children to read, do addition, subtraction and in some cases multiplication, teaching them about geography, botany/zoology, music, Spanish and not to mention the softer social skills everyone talks about. And they do all this for much less than $15k per year. Just look at the all-day kindergarten recently implemented. Historically the DOE's curriculum for K-garten was based on a 1/2 day of academics, when all-day K was implemented they didn't change the curriculum, so how are the children learning more? Bottom line is they're not. And the currciculum will not change because it ripples through the entire K-5 curriculum. Special interests? Yes, Education Minnesota is a huge special interest group in this state and very powerful, of course they are pushing a UPK school district only agenda. It adds 2500-2800 teachers to their membership all contributing union dues. And where do you think the union dues will end up? If this was really about the kids you'd be advocating at the top of your lungs to let parents decide what is best for their own children.

The Challenge

"let parents decide what is best for their own children."

The challenge is that the kids who have poor academic achievement results and often questionable beliefs/behavior are what I call "unlucky kids". Often their parent(s) is incapable or unwilling to do the things that responsible mature educated Parents should be doing.

Now is that 19 year old single welfare mom with 2 kids from 2 different Fathers who are not in their life actually qualified to decide and act on what is best for her 3 year old. And is she mature, financially capable and disciplined enough to follow through?

The question then is how does society reach these Questionable Parents and their Unlucky Kids, so that those Unlucky Kids don't become the next group of Questionable Parents with their own Unlucky Kids?

This is the best model I have seen so far. However it requires significant funding and no union bureacracy, so it is doomed from both the Left and Right.
http://hcz.org/our-programs/

Special Interests

I really assume everyone that comes to this discussion of early ed has some bias or special interest. I would be more surprised if they didn't. What I hope for is some sort of a political compromise that would address the needs of all in this education debate.

I appreciate Ed Minnesota finally weighing in on their support of annual inflationary funding for public schools. Without that, the surplus is not really a surplus - only an unfunded cost that is passed on to the local taxpayer or voted down in property poor school districts. I see Edina's bond referendum vote for "Next Generation Learners" was even closer than people would predict in a property rich area of the State. In most of the state - rural and suburban - funding at the local level will be very tough to pass and teacher cuts will be the result.

Given the 3% inflationary need just to fund current teachers, and the consensus agreement on the value of early intervention in child care AND school readiness, a final compromise would make sense. Governor Dayton should get a phase in approach to his Universal Preschool proposal (I would, however, point out that Universal Preschool is not "universal" until it reaches ALL students). But I do think the Education Governor should get credit for his vision and his commitment to Universal Preschool. Senate Democrats should get 3% on the per pupil formula and support both the Governor's phase-in and the expansion of school readiness. House Republicans should get some additional child care scholarships and support inflationary funding so their local taxes don't increase or their local teaching staff reduced.

Hang in there we are getting close to the end!!

Compromise

Just giving inflationary increases while increasing the scope of duties isn't going to get us there, and not every child needs "state funded" pre-school. Most parents can easily afford a good pre-school / day care center. The question is what is ED MN, Legislature and the School Bureaucracy going to change to be more cost effective with the money they are given while increasing quality, putting the children's needs first and closing the gap? Doing the same thing the same way and expecting different results certainly does not make sense.

Let's tweak the school systems so the Administrators can:
- terminate poor Teachers quickly so the kids will not lose learning progress
- place Teachers in positions that are the best for the kids in the district
- pay the best Teachers and those in the most challenging classrooms the most
- layoff Teachers based on recent performance when necessary
- enable new Teachers to teach in MN quickly

If these logical things were in place, the Teacher's license would not be as critical. If the Teacher is not performing, they are terminated. Most degreed engineers that design the things you use everyday are not licensed... They either perform well or they need to find a different career.

And if the Administrators fail to deliver good Teacher engagement and Student results, let's make it easy to replace them. I am happy to give the Public schools more money if they start putting the student's needs before the wants of the adults.

School Bureaucracy - one person's response

Although I agree with almost all of what you suggest - it is hardly tweaking. I tried for years in local labor negotiations to balance seniority with performance data albeit unsuccessfully. Unless you are willing to take a teachers strike it is very hard to negotiate. I would favor legislative action to do as you suggest.

In school readiness programs currently for 3-4 year olds a teachers license is encouraged but not mandated by the state. That allows districts across the state flexibility and local control in early learning programs. Some flexibility in licensing teachers coming here from other states is also needed.

I do disagree with your statement that "Most parents can easily afford a good pre-school / day care center." With poverty increasing as much as it has - doubled every decade I was in education - it is very hard for even double incomes to cover child care much less a good preschool program. Some of our suburban schools have poverty levels as high as 60 -70 % among its families. The sliding fee scale most Community Education programs have really helps but it is still not available to all students. Closing the achievement gap is impossible if you ignore the poor.

I also disagree with your engineer analogy - working with children is not the same as designing widgets. One last disagreement - it should not be easy to fire a teacher or an administrator. It should be based on performance data, in person observations, offers of professional growth and training, guided by excellent supervisors. If you make it easy to fire an educator - for any whim or reason an administrator or board member might deem appropriate - why would anyone one want to enter this profession. I do agree we need great educators to teach our children - we also need great supervisors to guide them and ultimately even let them go if they are incapable of improvement or excellence.

Real Life

I agree as long as the Union and it's Politicians fight productive reform, it will be nearly impossible to make the necessary improvements to close the achievement gap while keeping budgets reasonable.

"Fire easily" is a relative term in our modern world. Reasonable termination protections exist for us private business employees". Is there some reason the bar should be so much higher for public employees that are unionized? Or Administrators with employment contracts?

Which is more important, protecting poor to marginal teachers or ensuring that the unlucky kids have as many of the best Teachers that can be afforded for the budget allocated?

A good "already in the budget" daycare will fulfill what is needed to help the children be kindergarten ready. Many of the center Head Teachers are already degreed Teachers with either a 2 or 4 yr degrees. Now how to get school teachers to give them the respect they deserve, that is an interesting question?

Finally, there is no widget until the engineer has chosen and formed the highly variable pieces into a high value added widget. And many of these widgets are relied on to be very safe for your daily use. I understand that kids are not widgets, my point is that Teachers and Engineers must perform well or bad things will happen. So why all the focusing on licensing, instead of getting people with accredited degrees and terminating them if they do not perform effectively?