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Despite Dayton’s angry rhetoric, advocates see a potential roadmap out of the early-ed impasse

Art Rolnick said he was encouraged to hear that Dayton was willing to be flexible about the way early-childhood services are delivered: “We need a governor with that kind of leadership.”

An excerpt from Tuesday’s news conference of Gov. Mark Dayton discussing the education bill.

At the Tuesday news conference where he reiterated his plan to veto the K-12 education bill, Gov. Mark Dayton detailed a version of events in the last days of the legislative session that left early-childhood-education advocates in a quandary.

Do they disagree with the governor’s claim that he offered to compromise and to support approaches that are more flexible than his proposed universal school-based pre-K for 4-year-olds, or do they jump on what seems to be an olive branch?

One prominent advocate has clearly chosen the latter.

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“I looked at the governor’s veto letter and at the long list of things that did not get funded,” said Art Rolnick, the former Federal Reserve economist who did the original, groundbreaking research that showed an eye-popping return on investing tax dollars in early ed. 

“I agree with him. It’s pretty upsetting there’s no money for the North Side Achievement Zone, no money for the Head Start waiting list. I think it’s important that the governor is speaking out for early childhood education. I agree with him; with this surplus we should be investing a lot more.”

Rolnick said he was particularly encouraged to hear that Dayton was willing to be flexible about the way early childhood services are delivered. “We need a governor with that kind of leadership.”

The quandary — and a possible way forward

Early-ed advocates had been stuck between fearing that the special session that has now become inevitable could result in even less new education spending than the $400 million in the bill passed Monday, and throwing their weight behind a pre-K proposal they have described as impractical and overly one-size-fits-all.

The idea that the governor might be willing to direct meaningful funding increases to multiple approaches to targeting pre-K resources seemed to provide a roadmap out of the impasse.

It might be a good idea to give everyone a little time off before sitting down to discuss the nuts and bolts, however. The olive branch proffered Tuesday, if that’s what it was, was swaddled in the angry rhetoric Capitol insiders say came to characterize the last weeks of the 2015 session. 

Dayton Tuesday voiced some ugly characterizations that had the pre-K community wondering what version of their concerns had reached his ears.

“There were other vested interests that fought furiously behind the scenes to destroy our pre-K proposal,” said Dayton, adding that they included “real and self-proclaimed experts” on early childhood.

Art Rolnick
MinnPost file photo by Bill KelleyArt Rolnick

The governor didn’t name names, but one wishes he had. The voices speaking out against the proposal include Rolnick; Karen Cadigan, an early childhood researcher who Dayton himself tapped to be the first chief of his state Office of Early Learning; a who’s who of Minnesota’s civil and philanthropic communities; and his own task force on early learning.

“The naked, petty self-interest of all this is shocking,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve been told that and I’ve seen it in evidence over the last couple of months.”

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That self-interest, in his view, included school superintendents and board members who raised concerns about the practicality of the proposal: “They don’t want to do it ’cause they don’t want to do it.” 

The child-care providers who decried universal pre-K’s potential impact on the state quality ratings system that’s been under development for the last decade “don’t want to lose their clients,” he said, supplying air quotes around the word “their.”

Districts stretched

Many district leaders have repeatedly said that while they would like to be able to offer preschool to all, they are stretched past their limits finding the classroom space for the all-day kindergarten approved in the last biennium. 

Nor are there enough licensed early childhood teachers to make a dent in the demand the proposal would create. Nor do they believe the true costs of the programming are reflected in the governor’s budget.

Meanwhile, the child care providers who have been scrambling to earn the high quality designations that would allow them to compete for scholarships have tried to point out that because adult-to-child ratios increase as kids grow, losing 4-year-olds would be a budget-buster for small and home-based early ed programs.

Dayton also advanced a chronology of negotiations leading up to the legislative stalemate that doesn’t jibe with the recollections of several members of the early childhood education community, whom he derided at the Tuesday press conference.

Brenda Cassellius

For their part, the advocates say they were told in a meeting with Brenda Cassellius and Lucinda Jesson, commissioners of education and human services, respectively, that Dayton would be sticking to his guns on school-based preschool. This is, of course, the same stance the governor maintained in public over the weekend and into the wee hours Monday as lawmakers inked a bill they knew he would reject.

Indeed the advocates point to a May 15 letter from Dayton to legislative leaders in which he said he would settle for no less than a list of priorities including 1.5 percent increases on the general formula in each year of the biennium and $173 million for half-day universal pre-K.  

On Tuesday Dayton sounded determined to prove there was a groundswell of support for his pre-K plan. He reiterated a plan to criss-cross the state talking to people. The remark came partly in response to a tart comment from House Speaker Kurt Daudt, who said that the governor had five months to show there was broad support but failed to do so.

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Even his administration’s own testifiers offered tempered support and experts called to speak in conference committee continued to voice a preference for a mixed delivery system.

Indeed in its final omnibus bill, the state Senate adopted a pre-K approach that would have put money into school readiness funds, a pot of money districts said would better suit their needs. While the universal pre-K proposal would have created a uniform school day for all 4-year-olds, the readiness dollars could be used to target fragile families with tailored programming.

The bill Dayton will veto contained $30.7 million each for school readiness and for the early learning scholarships preschool advocates have been hoping to scale up for years.

Rolnick is one of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s early ed advisers. That city has adopted universal pre-K, but parents have the option to choose between school-based programs and community providers. That is enabling the program to come to scale rapidly, Rolnick said.

Along with the crude characterizations of their positions, the stark difference between the chronology Dayton laid out Tuesday and the recollections of many early ed advocates had some wondering how information reaches the governor.

At several junctures over the years Cassellius has expressed a strong desire that a large share of early-ed spending be directed to public schools.

On Twitter, Cambridge Republican Rep. Sean Nienow wondered whether Dayton had been influenced by Education Minnesota, whose relatively new director of policy, research and outreach is married to his communications director.

Dayton refused Tuesday to commit to a different pre-K approach during the special session, but Rolnick said he is still optimistic: “Once something’s on the table, it’s always on the table.”

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