Expansion of taxpayer funded Free PreK is on the agenda in St. Paul and both Democrats and Republicans are on board.
Rep Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, introduced Governor Dayton’s Education bill in February (House File 844) where it will be worked on in the Education Finance Committee which Rep Loon chairs. Governor Dayton had initially proposed $110 million to partially fund universal all-day PreK for all Minnesota 4-year-olds. Now that news of a larger taxpayer surplus has been announced, Dayton quickly increased his ask to $348 Million to fully expand Minnesota’s government-tun education system to cover PK-12. There are 31,000 children who would be eligible to attend school at age 4. President Obama made the push for universal PreK in his 2014 State of the Union speech and Dayton has often followed the lead of the President on policy endeavors.
Many special interests are also pushing for expansion of taxpayer funded PreK in Minnesota. MinneMinds, launched in 2013, is a powerful consortium of more than sixty organizations including tax-exempt religious charities like Catholic Charities, Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners, and the Minnesota Council of Churches. In addition, many of the biggest names in Minnesota healthcare are also a part of the coaltion including; Health Partners, Park Nicollet, Medica, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Children’s Hospitals, Delta Dental, and UCare. MinneMinds is chaired by Frank Forsberg, a Senior Vice President with Greater Twin Cities United Way.
Rather than raise the scholarship funds privately through the many organizations that make up MinneMinds, they are lobbying for more tax dollars to expand the existing Early Childhood Education Scholarships . The scholarships can be used at public school PreK programs, Head Start classes, or private daycare providers.
The general consensus of organizations like MinneMinds is that low-income kids do better outside their own homes and away from their parents when it comes to school preparation. Universal PreK advocates, like Mark Dayton, tend to believe that low income kids need to be with middle income kids in order to succeed and a universal system creates that environment. MinneMinds proposes scholarships for 3 & 4 year olds as well as childcare, mentoring and home-visiting programs for 0-2 year olds.
The state scholarships currently in place may only be used at programs run through the Mn Department of Health & Human Services “Parent Aware” rating system. Governor Dayton helped enact these back during the 2011 budget process. $2 Million was made available in 2013 and an additional $3 Million in 2014 for scholarships up to $4,000 per child. In 2015- 2016, the scholarship program will spend about $27 Million a year for scholarships up to $5,000 per child. Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, is the chief sponsor of this session’s expanded scholarship bill (House File 603) and it remains to be seen what Republicans will support for funding and scholarship amount.
The powerful teacher’s union, Education Minnesota, has a current legislative agenda which matches Governor Dayton’s for taxpayer funded all-day PreK for all Minnesota 4-year-olds. Governor Dayton’s education bill promises PreK teacher salaries in line with Kindergarten teacher’s and a staff to student ratio of 10:1. The Union’s membership would greatly expand should Minnesotans add another grade to the public school system. Dayton’s plan would put a large dent in the business of private daycare providers– who pay state taxes. In addition, it could significantly reduce enrollment in existing private and church-based pre-schools.
Another promise in Dayton’s education bill is $28 million for universal free breakfast for grades PreK-3, this would provide an 83,000 students with free breakfast. Universal food service– regardless of income– is seen as a way to negate the “stigma” with free meals at school.
Other bills at the Capitol to address daycare/early childhood education include House File 318 which appropriates money for grants to cover children ages 16 months to 4 years old using an “evidence-based and research-validated early childhood literacy and school readiness program.” (Chief Author Rep Loon, R-Eden Prairie)