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Our View: Universal preschool plan deserves consideration

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Four-year-old Covado Bernard shows Gov. Mark Dayton what he's learning on an iPad at Newport Elementary School in Newport, Minn., as preschool teacher Brittany Vasecka looks on.

Mark Dayton sat on a classroom floor with 4-year-olds, watching them search for the letter "S" throughout the classroom.

Brittany Vasecka, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Newport Elementary School, had declared "S" the letter of the week and assigned students to wear a "letter detective vest" while they looked for every "S" in the room. Dayton complimented the students on their detective skills and later sat with them as they worked on iPads.

Getting down on the floor with the 4-year-olds was an impressive effort for Minnesota's 68-year-old governor, who is a little more than a year removed from hip surgery, let alone any adult of a certain age. The visit to the South Washington County School program was intended to promote his plan to fund universal preschool for all of Minnesota's 4-year-olds.

It's a bold initiative by Dayton who has proposed $348 million in new state spending to provide universal preschool in every public school district. It should be no surprise that Dayton is all in for universal preschool. This initiative is reminiscent of the all-day kindergarten legislation that passed in 2013, which he frequently touted during his re-election campaign as one of the major successes of his first term.

"We have already seen the tremendous successes of all-day kindergarten, which got underway just this year," Dayton said. "But we have a lot more work to do to narrow Minnesota's achievement gap and provide excellent education for every student in Minnesota. That work has to start now, and it must begin with our youngest learners."

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When extolling the benefits of universal preschool, Dayton points to a report issued in January by the Education Research Center that ranks Minnesota 50th in the nation for all-day preschool enrollment. The governor also cites another report by the National Institute for Early Education that ranks Minnesota 40th in the nation in access to prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds, with just 1 percent enrolled. For comparison, neighboring Wisconsin is ranked fifth with 64 percent enrollment, and Iowa is seventh with 60 percent enrolled.

Dayton's universal preschool plan hasn't been embraced by all early childhood education advocates. Many of them argue that targeted funding for at-risk children is more effective than a universal approach. The prominent critic is economist Art Rolnick, a policy fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs whose research concluded that getting poor children into good preschool programs had a return on investment of 16 to 1.

In a recent visit to the Post-Bulletin, Revenue Commissioner Cynthia Bauerly said it is an unprecedented opportunity to provide an academic boost and a way to save families money. She said Minnesota has the third-most expensive child care costs in the nation, with an average cost of $901 per month for a 4-year-old child . Parents no longer would have to pay out-of-pocket for preschool, Bauerly said, and would avoid child care costs while their children attend full-day preschool.

We find the Dayton administration's arguments compelling. However, realistically, Dayton's proposal will have to be scaled back if it has any chance to pass. The $348 million plan is easily his biggest spending proposal and would make up nearly one-fifth of the state's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus. We encourage the Legislature to fund pilot programs to test the effectiveness of universal preschool.

One thing is increasingly clear. Dayton, who began his career as a ninth-grade science teacher in the New York City public schools, intends to make early childhood education his legacy as he completes his final term as governor.

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