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Minnesota Having a Not-So-Nice Argument Over Preschool

Minnesotans are in the midst of one of the most confusing political battles over public preschool that I've heard of yet. Texas' brouhaha between its two leading Republicans, the governor and the lieutenant governor, is a simple matter compared to the shifting definitions and alliances characterizing the Minnesota debate.

For a detailed history of how Minnesota came to its current impasses, you can't do any better than Beth Hawkins' reporting in MinnPost, especially here and here, but I'll do my best to summarize things.

Minnesota currently has a much-lauded public preschool scholarship program aimed at serving children from the lowest-income families. It's connected to a quality rating system, and the Obama administration liked it so well it awarded the state $45 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant dollars. But the program is tiny, relatively speaking, currently serving only one in 10 eligible children.

This winter, early-education advocates had been eagerly awaiting Gov. Mark Dayton's budget in hopes that he would direct some of the state's surplus to substantially expand the scholarship program. Instead, they got, well, more than they had bargained for. Dayton, a long-time champion of early education, had more than doubled the amount of money set aside for it to $343 million in the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2015, and $916 million for the one after that. (Minnesota runs on a two-year budget cycle known as a biennium.) He'd also proposed that money be directed to universal preschool for all children regardless of income.

Were such a plan to become reality it would be very big national news. The only other state with such a program is Oklahoma. While states like New Jersey and Georgia serve a large majority of 4-year-olds in public preschool programs, they don't actually guarantee a spot for every 4-year-old in their states.

But Dayton (who is a member of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which affiliates with the national Democratic Party) is not having an easy time of it.

Many advocates who pushed for years to get preschool at the top of the agenda aren't ready to change course from a targeted program to a universal program. And Republicans who were fully on board with the plan to expand the scholarship program have been blindsided by the much-more-expensive proposal to essentially create a 14th public school grade.

It's hard to follow even Hawkins' no-nonsense writing style when she dives into exactly which important Minnesotan thinks and said what to whom and when in this debate. (And I can only imagine that the famous Minnesotan niceness makes the whole mess even more complicated.)

As of April 15, the state Senate's education proposal for schools included $70 million in extra school-readiness funding for the next budget cycle, not enough more to fund Dayton's plan, according to the AP. The House has also balked at the governor's plan.

 

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