Massive spending for PreK on the table, but is it effective?

The expansion of state-funded PreK in Minnesota started in 2011 with a $4 million allocation for scholarships for low-income 3 & 4 year-olds from the Republican-led legislature. $40 million was spent on scholarships by the Democrat-led legislature two-years later.  Today, the Republicans are proposing $30 million increase in funding for the scholarships over the biennium and an additional $9.5 million for other school readiness programs. Democrats would put $5 million more into the scholarships and $70 million into school-readiness programs per the Star Tribune.

House and Senate leaders will meet today in conference committee to hash-out their differences in PreK spending contained in the omnibus K-12 Education budget bill.

Meanwhile, the Governor’s Early Learning Council is pushing for $194 million over the next two-years for PreK expansion for low-income children and Governor Dayton’s massive spending increase is still on the table.  The Governor wants $1.25 billion over the next four years to establish state-funded universal PreK for all Minnesota 4-year-olds– $342 million in the first biennium and $914 million in the second. An additional $28 million over the next two years is proposed by Dayton to provide free breakfast for all Minnesota students in grades PreK-3, regardless of income.

Alpha News reported in March about the coalition of business and union groups pushing for PreK expansion with the common theme of getting kids into formal academic settings sooner as a way to eliminate the state’s achievement gap.

The current scholarship program is in addition to Minnesota’s federally- funded Head Start program.  Childcare providers must be vetted through the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) “Parent Aware” rating system in order to accept state scholarship money.  Parent Aware was funded out of the Obama administration’s $45 million “Race to the Top” state allocation back in 2011.

Parent Aware fast-tracks public school PreK programs, and favors programs who employ licensed teachers, teachers who have undergone training on “cultural and socio-economic differences between families,” and those who engage in “practices that support inclusion.”  Childcare programs that offer healthy meals and incorporate things like yoga into the classroom are given higher-star ratings.  In order to obtain the most basic 1-star rating, a childcare provider must sign up with a coach, fill out a “training inventory” with DHS, ensure that they are testing kids based on state-approved assessment tools, be willing to offer families “helpful information about community services” and commit to continuing education. Even if the PreK is a church-based program, the program director is required to have specialized preparation in either program administration or business management.  Childcare professionals and PreK programs must be re-evaluated by the state every two years in order to remain in the program. Currently about 1,900 licensed child care providers out of 11,000 are certified via the Parent Aware system per the Minnesota House.  Should the scholarship program receive the likely injection of even more money from the legislature, more providers will be pushed into the DHS system, or be put out of business.

Proponents of expanded PreK have lamented that Minnesota is at the bottom of state-rankings when it comes to the number of 4-year-olds enrolled in state or federally-funded PreK programs.  Yet, taking a closer look at the states with the highest percentage of children enrolled in PreK verses those states with the lowest number enrolled reveals no correlation between state-funded PreK and high school graduation rates.  According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) states like New Hampshire, Utah, and Idaho all have less than 15% of children enrolled in state PreK and have graduation rates from 83-87% while states like Oklahoma and Wisconsin have 72-87% of kids enrolled, and have graduation rates in the same range of 85-88%. Minnesota currently has 15% of kids enrolled, and an 81% high school graduation rate. Washington DC enrolls 100% of kids in government PreK and has the worst graduation rate in the country.  (Note:  NIEER puts Washington DC in the “state” category.)

% 4-year-olds enrolled in state program 2012-2013 % enrolled in either state or federal program Universal PreK established Rank in State Spending per child enrolled Public High School Graduation rate
DC 94% 100% 2008 1 62%
Florida 78% 89% 2005 35 76%
Oklahoma 74% 87% 1990 7 85%
Vermont 71% 80% 2014 27 87%
Wisconsin 62% 72% 1984 20 88%
New Hampshire 7% 12% no state program 87%
Utah 6% 13% no state program 83%
Hawaii 4% 13% no state program 82%
Idaho 4% 13% no state program 84%
Nevada 10% 14% 33 71%
Minnesota 7% 15%   8 81%

Governor’s Dayton’s extreme spending proposal for over $170 million annually in the first two years of universal PreK would catapult Minnesota into the highest tier of total state spending on PreK per NIEER figures. Washington DC spends $175 million per year, and only six states– with much larger populations– spend more that that; Texas ($753 million), New York ($373 million), New Jersey ($624 million), California ($588 million), and Florida ($390 million).

Dayton shared his frustration with the budget numbers stating in April, “universal pre-K, I had proposed $343 million… The House is at zero. Senate’s at zero. I consider that a) unacceptable and b) insulting.”

Maybe the ones who should be insulted are the Minnesota taxpayers who would be on-the-hook for a new expansion of government that makes little sense.




Contributor Alpha News