If there was a remaining doubt in your mind about the Governor’s seriousness toward expanding universal four-year old preschool, check out his news release from Friday. It appears Governor Dayton has decided his legacy won’t just be all-day kindergarten but a wholesale expansion four-year-old preschool with an aim of making it a universal program in a few short years.

Questions remain about the state’s funding formula needed to achieve this and whether or not this will be a public-private endeavor with room for child care providers. Space issues for public schools remain, and there’s been no discussion on how to pay for an expanded facility foot print to take on tens of thousands of new four-year-olds in full-day programs.

Governor Dayton’s news release notes that in addition to the educational benefits of this initiative is an economic benefit to working families with young children. Minnesota, especially in the metro area, is notorious for having some of the most expensive child care rates in the nation. Having the state take on these child care costs would be a real benefit to working families.

View the details of the Governor’s plan on page 16 and 17 of this document.

Capitol Reaction

On the flip side, the House GOP remains cool to the idea of expanding this kind of middle class entitlement. For starters, there are concerns about whether or not the state budget can truly afford a universal program or if costs would be shifted to local school districts to make it happen.

Instead, the House GOP would rather target state dollars at scholarships to low income families to help them buy early learning time and perhaps additional child care time. House Education Chair Jennifer Loon (GOP-Eden Prairie) is quick to point out the needs of the current K-12 students body. On Tuesday night the House Ways & Means Committee will unveil budget targets including total spending on education programs.

The Senate DFL has two camps who fall in either side of this debate. Sen. Cohen, chair of the powerful Finance Committee, is in the scholarship camp. He’s also been known to be a budget hawk in terms of the “tails,” or spending implications, from one biennium to the next. The price tag of universal preschool must be a concern to him. Sen. Katie Sieben (DFL-Newport) is in the camp that says universal, school-based four-year-old preschool is the answer. She and her teacher union allies believe this approach will have the most significant impact on closing the achievement gap.

Recent comments by the Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) indicate the Senate DFL budget plan will come in much lower than what the Governor is proposing for new spending. He would like to put almost half of the $1.9 billion surplus in the bank.

“I think some people are going to view the Senate as a bit of a Grinch,” he told the Star Tribune, referring to the curmudgeonly Dr. Seuss character who eventually finds the joy of Christmas. Bakk said he had learned the lessons of budget surpluses of the 1990s, when the Legislature gave tax cuts and spent money until the downturn of the early 2000s, which forced the Legislature to deal with deficits and difficult decisions nearly every budget year after that for a decade.  Read the Star Tribune article.

What’s Next?

Sen. Wiger (DFL-North St. Paul), chair of the E-12 Budget Division, has the job of straddling the line between these two camps. He and the members of his committee have many competing priorities, including school facility funding, dollars for support staff and more. Later this week the Senate will unveil its budget plan including a total spending target for E-12 programs.