Brenda Cassellius: Stars align to help boost universal pre-K proposal

Every now and then, the stars align.

This saying has taken on new meaning for me as Minnesota is presented with an opportunity to transform the way we support our students, an opportunity we cannot afford to pass by: universal pre-K.

Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal rightly includes this initiative, recognizing the exciting chance we have to make a critical investment and provide 57,000 4-year-olds with access to high-quality pre-K right in their local schools.

Now the big question, why is universal pre-K the right choice for Minnesota?

The answer lies right in the name: universal.


Universal pre-K would benefit every single child in the state. Regardless of a family's income or whether they live in the metro or greater Minnesota, every single child would have the same access. If we truly want to break down barriers of opportunity and close achievement gaps, I can think of no greater way to address inequities than to implement a program placing every child on the same starting line.

Research shows universal pre-K works. Data from Tulsa, Okla., show poor students who attended public pre-K were 11 months ahead of their peers when entering kindergarten. Students from just above the poverty line were 10 months ahead, and middle-class students were seven months ahead.

Studies dating back to the 1960s also show impressive and long-lasting benefits for low-income students, including increased high-school graduation and employment and decreased incarceration. Investing in preschool for disadvantaged students is also cost-effective, averaging a $10 return on investment for every dollar spent.

For families the financial impact is also very real. It is estimated Minnesota families will save an average of $10,800 a year on child care costs.

There is also a large amount of flexibility for schools in implementing full-day pre-K. For too long the word "school" has brought to mind the image of a brick and mortar building. That definition is changing and this proposal recognizes that.

Districts can choose to implement a pre-K program in one of their school buildings or they can choose a mixed delivery system where a district would partner with an outside group such as a local private pre-K provider or even the city. This would mean districts could operate pre-K programs out of the community center or licensed teachers could be sent out to work alongside employees in a privately run pre-K center.

Another benefit of a public pre-K system is that the infrastructure is already in place. Transportation, nutritious meals and access to additional funding for students with special needs are just a few of the reasons public pre-K is a smart move. Ultimately, we know the demand is there.

This year was the first time school districts had access to full-day kindergarten funding passed in 2013. Both enrollment and school participation exceeded estimates. Every public elementary school in the state, with the exception of one, is offering a program and 99.6 percent of eligible students are enrolled.


Universal pre-K will build on that investment, but it is also part of a larger early education package taking a child's education, from birth to age 4, into consideration.

Currently, about 4,500 early education scholarships are available to families. These scholarships give low-income families the opportunity to enroll children in high-quality early learning programs. Under the governor's recommendation, we will double the number of scholarships available to families and change the age of eligibility from 3 and 4-year-olds to birth to age 3, with 4-year-olds now entering a pre-K program.

The governor also recommends $19.4 million to move every child currently on a Head Start waiting list off of the list and into a program. That is 2,484 children from low-income families who will have access to programming to enhance their cognitive, social and emotional developments, while also providing their families with health, educational, nutritional and other services. The positive impact this program has on children is immeasurable. I should know, I was a Head Start baby. No child should be denied access to these services.

Dayton's budget also would provide $17.5 million to improve access to quality child care for low-income working families through the Child Care Assistance Program. This investment would provide child care for an additional 1,375 children and enable 8,000 children to enroll in highly rated Parent Aware programs.

I truly believe this comprehensive early learning package will be transformative for our children. Each proposal makes its own positive impact for kids but also works in tandem with the next investment. It is an educational support system for students unlike anything Minnesota has ever seen.

The stars have aligned. Now, the only question is whether we will grab hold of this moment and do something transformative. If the answer is yes, we will be able to look back on this moment and know we made the right choice for our kids.

Brenda Cassellius is the Minnesota commissioner of education.

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