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Peggy Bennett: Approaches differ for preschool planning

Capitol Comments by Peggy Bennett

As a former first-grade teacher, I’ve seen students enter school at every level of development. It’s important for our young learners to come to school prepared to learn.

That’s why I’m supporting the House education plan of using targeted early learning scholarships to help the children who have the most need preparing for kindergarten.

Earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith visited the voluntary pre-kindergarten program at Halverson Elementary School in Albert Lea. I want to thank our lieutenant governor for taking the time to visit our local schools and observe the wonderful things they are doing there. I also want to thank Gov. Mark Dayton and his staff for valuing school readiness. I cherish those same goals in having every child ready for school when entering kindergarten.

Peggy Bennett

Our shared goal is to close the achievement gap between poor and minority students and their classmates. Though we all share the importance of this worthy goal, we do have differences on the route to get there. The question is, which route should we take?

The Republican approach in the House and Senate targets our resources where we believe we will achieve the greatest effect — focusing on Minnesota’s most at-risk children through early learning scholarships. These targeted scholarships are flexible, allowing low-income parents to take their scholarships to any quality parent-aware rated provider — including Head Start, public school, center-based or home-based programs. The scholarships are also portable and go with the child anywhere in Minnesota when the parents’ job or home changes.

Other important strengths I see in early learning scholarships is their propensity for encouraging parental engagement and their ability to reach the neediest children at a younger age, both of which are critically important in a child’s education. In addition, education — especially early education — is never a universal, one-size-fits-all endeavor. This mixed-delivery system embraces the strengths of both public and private settings, and allows for schedule flexibility and educational options that can individualize for student and family needs. These are all part of what make targeted scholarships so powerful.

Early learning scholarships stand in sharp contrast to the governor’s desire for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds. I want to acknowledge that we are very fortunate to have a governor who recognizes the importance of school readiness, and I appreciate his willingness to take this issue on. However, I have significant concerns with this plan, which has the end goal of adding an additional grade of 4-year-olds to our already overburdened public schools.

First, research does not support universal pre-K as a method to significantly improve student achievement, despite considerable taxpayer investment. Both Georgia and Oklahoma have had universal preschool available for their children since the late 1990s. Unfortunately, neither state has produced the noteworthy results proponents of universal pre-K would expect. Research does, however, support early learning scholarships that target those children at greatest risk for school failure, and can reach children at even younger than 4 years old.

Second, asking taxpayers to pay for all 4-year-olds, including wealthy families who can easily afford to send their kids to a pre-K program, is not getting the necessary funding where it needs to be. We don’t need an unnecessary subsidy for wealthy families. I believe a better choice is to take a laser-like approach where we will see the greatest gains toward our shared goal of kindergarten readiness.

My last concern is by no means the least. As our public schools absorb more and more 4-year-olds, siphoning many of them out of our local early childhood programs and daycares where they are already receiving service, we will have the unintended consequence of seeing many of these providers go out of business. We cannot afford to create further stress on a system where childcare and preschools are already in short demand — especially in greater Minnesota. Instead, why not utilize many of these quality programs through targeted scholarships?

Our state is at a philosophical crossroads in the area of early childhood education. We can either go the route of mandating expensive, unproven voluntary pre-K for all 4-year-olds, or we can continue and enhance the targeted early childhood scholarships our state currently offers that have proven to be effective in closing the achievement gap.

Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, is the District 27A representative.