Editorial: Case for Pre-K remains thin

Published 9:39 am Friday, May 22, 2015

Gov. Mark Dayton may be willing to force a special session over universal Pre-K for 4-year-olds, cited in his veto letter as his No. 1 legislative priority, but the governor has failed to make a persuasive case for it.

Both houses of the Minnesota Legislature passed an education finance bill Monday, the chaotic final day of this year’s regular legislative session. Dayton has promised to veto it. In his veto letter, he notes that the bill omits funding for a number of projects that he believes will help close the so-called achievement gap between white students and students of color. Dayton’s letter decries the absence — despite, he said, his willingness to move from a full-day to half-day approach — “of any version of voluntary, universal pre-kindergarten, which will help 47,000 4-year-olds” and address the gap.

As we understand them, Dayton’s intentions are good enough, and some of the specific, highly targeted programs he wants funded — including the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood — may well help in progress toward closing the gap.

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But universal pre-K — adding hundreds of millions of dollars of permanently increasing permanent spending, regardless of need — would spread an expensive, thin blanket over the whole state, rather than wrapping more layers around a smaller number of kids who need much more.

“The high return to the public is in investing in our most at-risk children,” Art Rolnick, former research director at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, now with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told us last month.

In the study that made Rolnick a national leader in the fields of child development and social policy, “we got an 18 percent inflation-adjusted return when you invest in our most at-risk kids,” he said.

Further, studies emphasize the value of starting earlier, he said — noting initiatives that begin with pre-natal programs.

The debate Minnesotans heard in recent months cited the data, indeed, but often used findings to support broad notions about the value of early education and closing the achievement gap, rather than the specifics of the universal approach and the tradeoffs it involves. The sums are large enough — hundreds of millions of dollars — and the stakes high enough — an achievement gap that’s debilitating to individuals and also threatens Minnesota’s economic competitiveness — that big changes should proceed on specific merits, not broad notions.

Certainly, there’s value in high-quality Pre-K experiences for our children. Such access, however, needn’t be a centrally directed, one-size-fits-all mandate from the state. Far better, many think, is a system that builds on strong elements in place, including scholarships, Parent Aware ratings, a network of private providers and other options that offer the advantage of parental choice and market forces.

There are still more nuances to consider, suggests Arthur J. Reynolds of the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor in the Institute of Child Development. “We need to have really the best of both the universal and the targeted if we want to reach the goal of all children school-ready by 2020.”

“A universal system that then is tailored to the individual needs of families,” he told us, “is really the only way that’s going to get all kids school-ready.”

Further, not enough weight is being given “to the fact that the state is so far behind other states” in access to such programs, Reynolds said. Access to high-quality programs “needs to be an issue for all families, and that could gain broader support as time goes on.”

Despite the brilliance and dedication of many educators and administrators, big bureaucratic systems — which our public schools generally are — are too easily co-opted by interests that may or may not coincide with the interests of children. So it’s difficult to see how bolting a whole new expensive and centralized system onto an old expensive centralized system is a good idea.

Meanwhile, the amended bill, according to the Session Daily, retains a House of Representatives provision that would increase funding for early- education scholarships for low-income families, as well as a Senate provision for increased funding for School Readiness early-learning programs.

For now, that approach makes the most sense for Minnesota.


— St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 19

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