Discussions have centered on Dayton’s top priority of universal preschool.  

House Republicans and Gov. Mark Dayton each called in academic heavyweights to make their cases as negotiations over how Minnesota should deliver preschool instruction continued Thursday.

Art Rolnick, formerly a senior vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis who has studied the benefits of early-childhood education, is standing with GOP leaders as they press for more funding for early learning scholarships. Rolnick and House Speaker Kurt Daudt touted the benefits of scholarships during a visit to a St. Paul day-care center Thursday.

Dayton, meanwhile, tapped Arthur Reynolds, a University of Minnesota professor in early childhood development, to join him, Daudt and other education officials during budget talks.

The discussions this week centered on the governor’s top priority of universal access to preschool for an estimated 47,000 4-year-olds. Dayton recently rejected a $17 billion education budget bill, in part because lawmakers snubbed his preschool proposal over concerns of cost and effectiveness.

“What the governor and I agree on is, we want to close the achievement gap,” Daudt, R-Crown, told reporters after visiting with preschoolers at a New Horizon Academy in St. Paul. “We have a little difference of opinion on how to achieve that, but I think Minnesota deserves to have a great debate like this.”

Minnesota boasts a projected budget surplus of $1.9 billion, but lags many other states in access to prekindergarten programs. Experts point to research that shows strong early-learning programs ensure children are prepared for kindergarten and pay off in the long run by reducing the rate of juvenile delinquency and boosting high school graduation rates, among other benefits.

“This isn’t theory anymore,” Rolnick said after the New Horizon Academy tour. “Our kids are starting school healthy and ready to learn. It is working … It makes no sense to say you can only go to a public program. It makes no sense to start at 4.”

Rolnick argues that scholarships give parents the choice between private providers or public programs, and allows families to enroll their children in programs beginning at birth.

Expanded access proposed

Dayton’s proposal would fund the scholarship program at existing levels, but he also is calling for expanded access to prekindergarten through public schools. The governor and his allies say universal prekindergarten would reduce the state’s achievement gap and lower the cost of child care for middle-class families. His latest pitch would require $100 million to phase in half-day prekindergarten around the state. That’s significantly less than the roughly $343 million he had previously requested for all-day prekindergarten.

On Thursday afternoon, talks among the political leaders lasted a full two hours and they planned to reconvene at 9 a.m. on Friday. Dayton said the nearly 10,000 state employee layoff notices going out Monday would lend a greater urgency to talks that so far have been nominal.

“For 10,000 people, it’s going to make this more starkly real,” Dayton said. “But we don’t want to rush through this, we want to do it right.”

Dayton and Daudt said they still consider a special session later next week a possibility.

Dayton called the experts’ contributions inside “spirited.” Added Peppin: “It wasn’t a lot of us talking.”

Legislators will be returning to St. Paul in the coming weeks for a special session to address three vetoed budget bills that provide funding for education, jobs and environmental protection. Dayton and Daudt must come to agreements on the vetoed bills before the governor calls lawmakers back to pass the spending measures.

Daudt on Thursday said he and other GOP leaders would press for more funding for scholarships, which can be used at private day care providers or public schools that offer prekindergarten programming. About half of Twin Cities parents enroll their children in public preschool programs, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

Scholarships, however, are currently capped at $5,000 and don’t cover the full cost of day care in the Twin Cities. A 2012 survey of child care providers showed that the median cost of a Twin Cities preschool program is more than $11,000 annually. Officials project those rates will rise once an updated report is published soon. Education officials will revise the amount of scholarships based on the updated survey results.

“We’re certainly open to investing more money,” Daudt said. “We want to make sure that the money we invest is used effectively and really the scholarship program is the program that is showing success … We’re open to raising the caps.”

The governor and legislators are working to meet a June 30 deadline to fund the nearly two dozen agencies affected by the budget impasse or risk another partial government shutdown.

Layoff notices to about 9,400 state employees will go out Monday, state budget officials said Thursday.

Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.