The push for expanded preschool funding didn’t end in June when the Minnesota Legislature wrapped up a special session by agreeing on a $79 million spending boost.
For Gov. Mark Dayton, who says giving families widely expanded access to preschool is a top priority of his final years in office, that compromise was only the beginning.
Since then, he and his deputies have made it a point to visit preschool programs whenever they can. Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith’s schedules alone show they have visited schools four dozen times this year.
The entire Legislature is up for election in 2016, and members will be eager to campaign on their accomplishments. But Dayton insists lawmakers address his priority of widely expanded preschool funding if they want his support for other legislation.
“I’ll make it a requirement for getting my support for certain things that legislators want, like tax cuts,” the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party governor said as the school year began in September.
“But there’s no way I am going to support giving money back when there’s money that’s badly needed for these kind of purposes.”
Educators widely agree that expanding access to high-quality preschool is an important tool as Minnesota works on closing a stubborn achievement gap between poor and minority students and their white and more affluent classmates.
Dayton’s initial insistence on funding a universal public preschool program for 4-year-olds flummoxed many education advocates. Such a program would be expensive, $175 million a year or more, and many schools would have to add classrooms and hire teachers to meet the demand.
Meanwhile, existing preschool providers feared a taxpayer-funded system would reduce demand for their services and also hurt other programs they offered to younger students.
Dayton eventually softened his stance. After first pushing for universal half-day preschool, he settled for a mix of increased spending for school readiness aid to districts and for scholarships that families can use at programs they chose.
The governor has said repeatedly that if the Legislature would provide the money, he would both establish a universal preschool program and fully fund scholarships for needy younger students.
Most early education experts say a “mixed delivery system” is the best way to provide preschool to every 4-year-old on a family’s request. That would mean a measured expansion of public school programs and a significantly larger investment in scholarships that families could use for public and private programs.
Scholarship advocates estimate more than $150 million would be needed annually to provide scholarships to every 3- and 4-year-old Minnesotan who needs one.
Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota and a preschool champion, was critical of Dayton’s initial push for a universal system. He said the governor is coming around to the idea of a more targeted approach.
“Do you really want to (subsidize) parents making a quarter million a year?” Rolnick asked. “I think everyone agrees (that) with limited money, we should target the kids who need it most.”
A PITCH FOR MORE MONEY
Minnesota plans to spend at least $160 million over the next two years on public preschool programs and scholarships. But experts say a significantly larger investment is necessary to reach all the students who need it.
About 45 percent of Minnesota’s 3- and 4-year-old kids attended preschool in 2013, the last year national data was available from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an advocate for disadvantaged children and their families.
Just 38 percent of low-income children had access to preschool, and about half of the kids from more affluent families attended, the foundation reported.
If Dayton wants to improve those numbers to close the achievement gap and ease the financial burden on families, Rolnick said, he should focus on increasing scholarship funding and adjusting the caps on income eligibility and how much aid a family can receive.
Tammy Kane said that when she learned her daughter Maeve’s preschool scholarship was increasing to $7,500 this school year, she fought back tears.
“I almost cried,” the Prior Lake mom said. “I didn’t know if we would make it through the end of the year; money is so tight.”
Last year, the scholarship ran out before the school year ended, and Kane had to take Maeve out of New Horizons Academy in St. Paul.
But because lawmakers lifted the $5,000 scholarship cap this year, Maeve will be able to attend preschool three days a week until summer.
Kane said her 5-year-old daughter’s time at New Horizons has made a big difference on her school readiness “Her learning has skyrocketed,” she said.
Maeve is one of the lucky scholarship recipients. The state doesn’t have hard numbers for how many scholarships will be awarded this school year, but early estimates show about 5,700 students will receive assistance.
That’s just 12 percent of the 3- and 4-year-old Minnesotans whose families qualify for help.
A preschool scholarship would mean a lot to parents such as Rashad and Hamid Gabose who recently welcomed the birth of a third daughter, Isra.
Their two older girls, Manahil, 3, and Asiya, 2, attend the Mayflower child care and preschool program in South Minneapolis, where teachers already are helping the girls prepare for kindergarten.
But the program’s tuition is a burden to the Gabose family. They don’t have much income to spare, and when the medical bills for Isra’s birth arrive, times will get even tighter.
Rashad Gabose said he has applied for a scholarship from the state and tuition assistance from Mayflower. But so far, the family is on the waiting list.
Gabose said the family sacrifices to send the girls to Mayflower because he and his wife believe preschool plays an important role in preparing children for kindergarten — even at 2 and 3 years old.
“It activates their brain earlier than taking them to preschool at 4 or 5 years old,” he said. “I can tell the difference already.”
Gabose said he hopes state lawmakers will invest much more in early education programs that help children like his daughters.
“Tomorrow, one of these kids might be working at the Capitol building, saying the same things about their children,” he said. “If we start early, kids will be ready for school and in much better academic shape than they are now.”
The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school district is one of only a few in Minnesota that have offered a public preschool program for decades.
While a version of the district’s Tiny Tots program first emerged 40 years ago, the growing national focus on the importance of preschool encouraged school leaders to ramp up capacity in recent years.
The district now offers the program in three elementary schools, and there are plans to expand, said Cindy Check, early childhood programs director.
Giving families options has long been key to Tiny Tots success, and the district provides full- and half-day programs, along with tuition assistance and transportation to those families who need it.
“The program has always been based on community need,” Check said. “We are looking for the models that are most effective to the needs of students.”
About 400 students participate in the program, and demand is growing, she said. About two-thirds of families chose a part-time program, and the need for scholarships continues to increase.
Preschool teacher Lori Haggerty said that over her 21-year career in the district, expectations have changed. But she said Tiny Tots continues to focus on preparing children socially and emotionally for kindergarten.
Academics — learning letters, numbers, colors and shapes — are a big part of what Tiny Tots teachers do. Yet, Haggerty said, they are careful to keep classes fun and avoid pushing students too hard.
“We want them to be the best preschoolers they can be,” Haggarty said. “We are not trying to make them be kindergartners before they’re ready.”
When Sarah Stusse moved to Burnsville from Omaha, Neb., two years ago, the Tiny Tots program at Rahn Elementary was recommended for her daughter Avery. Stusse said that Avery had such success in the program that she now enrolls her son Milo.
The individual attention and focus on school readiness made a big difference when Avery moved on to kindergarten.
“That’s a huge change,” Stusse said, adding that Avery was nervous at first. “I kept reminding her, ‘You’ve done this before; it’s just a longer day.’ ”
When states widely expand preschool funding, their biggest challenge is ensuring tax dollars go to quality programs. Such programs — with trained teachers, an approved curriculum and strong family involvement — are shown to have a lasting impact on a child’s academic success.
Conversely, says Barbara Yates, president of preschool advocate Think Small, poor quality early childhood education can slow a child’s development.
“Some of those delays can last into middle school,” Yates said.
To help ensure preschool programs are high quality, Minnesota used a combination of federal grants, state aid and local philanthropy to create the Parent Aware rating system.
Public and private preschools can apply for a Parent Aware rating, and state-funded scholarships only can be used at rated programs.
A collaboration of the state departments of human services, education and health, Parent Aware began as a pilot program in 2008. It became available statewide in January.
In July, about 17 percent of preschools were rated, including nearly all school-based programs, 30 percent of private centers and 8 percent of licensed home-based preschools.
In the metro Twin Cities, 75 percent of the top-rated, home-based preschools were run by minorities, which experts say is a key factor in closing the achievement gap.
Yates said that before Parent Aware, Minnesota had little information about the quality of its early education programs.
“There is a huge range of quality across all of these systems,” she said. “I think what we get from Parent Aware is a way for all those programs to have continuity.”
Studies of the effectiveness of Parent Aware and the preschool scholarship program are due for release early next year, and preschool advocates eagerly await their findings.
Supporters believe those reports will provide more evidence that a mixed delivery preschool system is the way to go.
Ericca Maas, executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness, a related agency that advocates for the rating system, said Parent Aware is poised to become the quality indicator for a statewide preschool system that mixes public schools, private centers and licensed home-based providers.
“We are building a bridge. It’s pretty near completion. We already have some traffic on it,” Maas said. “To get off the path we are on right now would set us back.”
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger and Nathan Sommer contributed to this report. Christopher Magan can be reached at 651-228-5557. Follow him at twitter.com/chris_magan.