Dayton’s education funding fight is a lot like one fought by Arne Carlson, with one big difference

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Former Gov. Arne Carlson

A governor designates a significant change in education policy as his priority of his second term in office. 

His passion for the issue comes from personal experience in the public school system.

He stakes his political reputation on passing the change because he has nothing to lose. He will not be running for office again.

He promises that if the legislature fails to include his marquee issue in the K-12 education bill, the bill will be vetoed.

Over the last days and weeks, Gov. Mark Dayton has taken all of these steps as part of his efforts to get the Legislature to pass funding for pre-K education for 4-year-olds.

But he is not the first governor to go down that road. Gov. Arne Carlson did all of the above in 1997 to win his battle over offering tax credits for education expenses, including private school tuition, a modification of a school voucher proposal that was dead on arrival when he proposed it in 1996.   

Carlson ended up vetoing the Legislature’s initial education funding bill, and later described the month following the veto as “one of the most difficult months of my life.” 

That month was equally difficult — or at least challenging — for his staff, who were tasked with convincing the legislature to include tax credits in the bill it would take up in a special session. (By then I was no longer part of the Carlson’s staff.) 

“This was the governor’s main thing,” said Chas Anderson, Carlson’s outreach director for the tax credit issue. Anderson, like other staffers, had heard the Carlson stories, how his passion for choices in education started after an impoverished youth in New York and a private school experience that he said changed his life.

Former Dayton staffer and campaign manager Katherine Tinucci echoes those sentiments in her description of Dayton and his experience as a public school teacher in New York. “It was a short career but incredibly informative,” she said. “Working with students, he carries that experience with him.” 

Tinucci has no doubt that Dayton will live up to his veto promise. “He’s going to lay it all out the table and really fight for what he wants to get done,” she said.

Yet there’s one big difference between the fight 18 years ago and now. Dayton hasn’t built the base of support for his issue that Carlson produced in 1997. The key to Carlson’s ultimate success was the work of two well-organized coalitions: one comprised of business groups, the other an umbrella group called Minnesotans for School Choice, comprised of religious-affiliated organizations. 

Anderson worked with those coalitions on making sure their concerns reached the right legislators. “I remember, [chief of staff] Bernie Omann would ask every day, ‘how are the calls going into so-and-so’s office.’”

The calls were coordinated with rallies at the capitol and Carlson’s speeches before churches and business audiences.

The efforts paid off. Polls showed support for Carlson’s proposal, and the legislature, during a special session, passed the law, though he final bill did not include the tax credits for private or parochial schooling.

At a news conference Sunday, Dayton promised the public support for funding pre-K schooling will emerge when the public understands the Republican position, “that four-year olds have to pay the price for their political posturing… their precious tax cuts.”

Dayton declined to indict the DFL-controlled Senate in his remarks but, like Carlson in 1997, he faces opposition to his “number one priority” in both legislative bodies. His battle for pre-K education will take place on two fronts.

But Dayton, like Carlson, seems ready — even eager — for a special session fight. “Investing in education every year he was governor,” Tinucci said. “This is why he wanted to do it.”

It appears that when it comes to a drawing a line in the sand, nothing will bring a governor to the beach like education policy.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/18/2015 - 11:06 am.


    Other than Education Minnesota, who in the world is supporting this huge scope creep? I am all for early education scholarships Parents who need the financial assistance, however this much different.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/19/2015 - 08:59 am.


      People who believe in public education. Parents, voters, etc. There are significant gaps in preparedness when children enter the education system, and those gaps significantly affect performance and learning. People who recognize that fact, and want to improve education equity support Dayton’s agenda.

      • Submitted by Mike M on 05/19/2015 - 12:13 pm.


        Unfortunately you’re mis-informed. Many school districts do not want this, the DOE is not really behind it 100% and most of the general public is not behind it, the Governor’s own Early Learning Council doesn’t support his plan. Leader after leader and group after group says it’s not the right plan (The United Way, ThinkSmall, Minnieminds, Parent Aware). Everyone is for early childhood education and it’s easy to say but a complete takeover of 4 year olds is not realistic. Dayton’s plan is for a universal, school district run only option. The gaps that exist are for low income families, the current bill which was just passed includes scholarships to help those famlies and it targets the money where it will do the most good. Art Rolnik, former Fed Reserve economist and UofMN Fellow says the school district only option is the most inefficient use of tax dollars because you’re subsidizing everyone instead of the people that really need it. Just look at the success of the current plan up in the White Earth area, amazing stuff.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/19/2015 - 01:21 pm.


          The unions are demonized for a “power grab” yet the groups you mention are lauded for their staunch opposition to taking pre K out of private hands and putting it in the public sphere. It’s almost like they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Odd.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/19/2015 - 05:53 pm.

            Private Hands

            I think I may agree with you, people like myself do want to keep pre-school choice in the “private hands” of the Parents. And we want to help the Children who need the most help by helping their Parents.

            The achievement gap will not be closed by spending more on all kids, because the kids with the better support systems will capitalize on the extra effort better and the gap will remain or increase.

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/18/2015 - 01:21 pm.

    The difference between Carlson and Dayton

    As a Democrat, I liked the fact that Carlson was able to work on a bi-partisan basis to get things done. He was a wonderful practical politician. Of course, his reform idea didn’t benefit the most needy, as tax credits are generally of low utility to the poor, but what he wanted wasn’t unreasonable and certainly was appealing to middle class families.

    Dayton is not your conventional politician. He has a big vision of what he thinks should happen with education which involves fundamentally doing it differently from today, as what we do today does not produce excellent results for disadvantaged children. He rightly recognizes the huge gap some kids have when entering school and believe that as the one single thing doing to the most to deprive poor kids of educational success. He wants to deal with it now, when he has a chance. Multiply the investment by about 10 times and you might really start seeing a difference,so in that context what he is asking for is not much – a fraction of what the public kicked in to finance the new Vikings palace.

    Young poor kids don’t vote and often their parents don’t either, and neither is making significant campaign contributions or has well paid lobbyists. Sure the teachers support this, because they deal with the issue with their students, and the day care businesses are opposed for totally reasonable economic reasons, but most of the rest of the people involved in the debate have no “skin in the game.” We aren’t talking about their children or grandchildren who will get the greatest benefits, because their children and grandchildren are generally as affluent as the self-proclaimed experts.

    This is about doing the right thing for all our kids. Having some kids start 20 yards behind the rest in a 100 yard dash isn’t fair, but that is a fair description of our educational system. The really fast ones might catch up with the rest, but most won’t. If that is good enough for our legislators, I’d like to suggest that they need to do some soul searching.

    • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 05/19/2015 - 08:51 am.

      Dayton is a Conventional Politician

      Dayton’s career has been almost entirely of being in politics. He joins a list of many that are well of due to others and has worked very little or never in a real job that this country is powered on. He has a set of powerful allies, especially the unions. If this makes him unconventional, I don’t know what is.
      This whole thing is just about him not wanting to come out looking badly again. He does not want the year to turn sour for him because his initial number 1 priority was the excessive gas tax that is highly unpopular. Dayton got his record tax increases and he wants more. Having a government shut down over taxes will make him look badly so pre-K is the new focus.
      Dayton does the same tired things we expect from career politicians.

  3. Submitted by Michael Hess on 05/18/2015 - 04:29 pm.

    the right approach

    I really think if Gov Dayton had gone out and pushed for a massive expansion of the programs of scholarship and other programs for “at risk” kids to get them into a preschool program, he would have had more support and it would be difficult for a politician to say they don’t want to see those kids helped in catching up before K.

    The research that is out there which supports pre-K to my knowledge is almost always done with these at risk kids. But Gov Dayton has repeatedly refused to consider this approach and insists on the all or nothing universal pre-K for all. His approach makes school districts nervous, they are struggling to deliver quality K-12 and he wants to dedicate a lot of money (future years $1B a year) to adding a new level.

    As discussed many times and unaddressed by the Governor this also has a domino effect on other funding points like facilities – expect school districts to raise levies to put on new classrooms for the new students they will have.

    I would like to think his push, this all or nothing stance on universal preschool is not about generating thousands of new union teaching jobs, but his insistence on putting the hard facts aside in favor of his emotional push make me wonder.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/18/2015 - 06:10 pm.

      A simple honest question

      We all want the “at risk” kids to succeed. The affluent kids are for the most part already in these programs. There’s a large gulf between “at risk” and affluent, populated by lots of kids whose parents are making very large sacrifices to ensure their kids get access to these sorts of programs. They aren’t being subsidized to offset the cost and they don’t have the bankroll to pay it without a thought like some. Why don’t these families matter? Why should the tax savings come at their expense? Why shouldn’t the schools be expected to educate their children? I could care less about what demographic is needed for political support or how big change is scary. These, my own included, are people’s lives and children’s futures. Somebody please explain to me, we advocate these programs because they are so beneficial for those that attend, either through stating the need for scholarships on the poor end, or by enrollment of kids on the rich end (a simple drive down a suburban road will show the obvious demand among the affluent), but yet for everyone in between we say, oh well, it’s nice if you can do it, but we’re really not interested in providing a reasonable way for you to afford it. It’s utterly mind boggling. Why? Why don’t my kids matter?

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/18/2015 - 08:14 pm.

        Sliding Fee Scales

        Our local in school pre-K program is called Creative Play, and it does have a sliding fee scale. And regarding your comments at this other MinnPost article.

        What are your thoughts here? How much exactly should society pay for the child (ren) you chose to have? I assume you get the $1,000 / child tax credit that phases out for people who make more. I assume you get the $5,000 dependent care tax deduction. (ie Flexible Spending Account) For many people, society pays to feed and provide healthcare for their children in part or in whole.

        I have a child in college, now that is really expensive. Should I be asking for someone else to pay for her education costs? I don’t think so, therefore I am still driving my 14 year old vehicle and painting my house myself. I chose to have 3 kids and they are my responsibility, not society’s.

      • Submitted by Mike M on 05/19/2015 - 12:26 pm.

        A simple honest question

        All kids matter but the low income children are coming from homes with a completely different support structure. They may be homeless or move around frequently, their parents may or may not be around due to various circumstances, the family may lack a support structure to help with these young children. This all impacts their brain development. Just one example of the impact of this home situation; a child from a low income family may hear millions of fewer words from the age of 0-3 and this has a huge impact on their development. Children from middle class familes do not have these same disadvantages, they have a support structure available, their brain development is not as impacted so in many cases they can be ready for kindergarten without preschool. But the chlidren from the low impact familes, as you point out, are not ready for school becuase of all these factors in their lives. That’s why it’s important to fund the low income families because they need it this most.

  4. Submitted by Don L. Watson on 05/18/2015 - 10:41 pm.

    Education is the Key

    As a retired Alaskan teacher, who taught mostly underprivileged children in the Alaskan bush and as a new Duluth resident, I am all for early education as Dayton proposes. If we as taxpayers don’t give a helping hand in training as early as possible for school success and in social safety net programs, we will pay many times more later in life for those at risk through crime, court and incarceration.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/19/2015 - 10:10 am.

      They made the same arguments

      for kindergarten.

      Throwing more money at public education and adding another grade isn’t going to fix anything but it’ll enable the politicians and bureaucrats to claim they did something.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/19/2015 - 11:46 am.


        Let’s assume most children are roughly the same at birth, and that their environment from ages 0 to 5 determines if they will be kindergarten ready.

        How would you help them if their parents are unwilling or incapable of helping them develop correctly?

        Please remember that breaking bad habits, behaviors and beliefs is very difficult once they are well entrenched.

  5. Submitted by Matt Haas on 05/19/2015 - 01:31 am.


    But I expect to have at least the option of equality with my peers. You assume that those of us in my position expect to coast through life with zero expectation of sacrifice. You are wrong. My cars are old too, whoopee! My question still holds, if the education is so important that the wealthy will spend thousands, and the poor should be subsidized for thousands, why should those who are neither wealthy enough to afford it outright, or poor enough to be subsidized, be left out of the mix. How do you honestly claim an even starting point for all when you know full well it’s not. Its not about funding, its not about politics, for folks like yourself on the conservative end of the spectrum its about walking your talk. If as you truly aim for meritocracy as you claim, how is that you can abide what is in every way opportunity rigidly stratified by class. The answer is easy to see from the assembled commentary on the topic, you demonize the education as useless (while still sending your own kids), you characterize your critics as lazy, foppish, mooches looking for a handout (while advocating for the desperately poor, in the hopes they come off the social program rolls), and you blame the whole shebang on your old standby of a boogeyman the unions. I’m glad there are those who can pay their children’s college tuition, my kids will be paying their own, just as there parents did and still are. I’d simply like the best chance to get them there, sans winding up homeless along the way. But hey, I digress, I guess I missed the memo stating one must be independently wealthy to be worthy of procreation. Good thing my parents did too.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/19/2015 - 10:44 am.

      The Question Remains

      By the way, I sent my children out of the house to a different pre-school so that they would learn to seperate from their Mom and they would get used to a different environment. We chose to operate an in home daycare and now a pre-school because early ed is her specialty and she wanted to be home for the kids.

      As for your very valid question. “If the education is so important that the wealthy will spend thousands, and the poor should be subsidized for thousands, why should those who are neither wealthy enough to afford it outright, or poor enough to be subsidized, be left out of the mix?”

      My answer is that lines have to be drawn somewhere, and I think the current lines are pretty good. Your children have already won the lottery if they have 2 caring smart responsible parents who care for them, feed them, set consistent rules, help them learn and hold them to following them. Many of the at risk / unlucky kids do not have that, that is why we need to help them with additional funding and pre k. Now wealthy Parents send their children to Providence Academy in Plymouth. It is a beautiful school and has extremely high expectations. Should we all demand that for our children, just because they can afford it? I don’t think so.

      So I will ask again. How much should society pay for the child (ren) you chose to have?

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