Dayton’s so-called pout over universal preschool should be called leadership

/ 19 May 2015 / Shawna
Wy Spano, MinnPost, May 19, 2015

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach 

For Minnesota’s sake, I sure hope Mark Dayton wins this argument.

Calling Gov. Mark Dayton’s attempt to introduce the concept of universal preschool into Minnesota a “public pout,” as Doug Grow did in his May 18 MinnPost column (“Why Dayton’s veto threat may pose problems — for Dayton”) is, in my estimation, profoundly wrong. It’s also the first time in my recollection Doug Grow has been so wrong in his writing. But, to the issue:

The moment we’re facing in Minnesota is analogous to the moment faced by Gov. Wendy Anderson and the Legislature in 1971. Eventually, after a nearly yearlong “public pout,” Anderson moved the state into a new education funding plan which guaranteed every Minnesota child relatively equal educational access, even if they lived in poorer areas of the state. We called the result of Anderson’s “pout” the Minnesota Miracle. Minnesota was one of two states in the entire country during the ’70s and ’80s where courts were not required to intervene in order to ensure adherence to the common state constitutional requirement of an equal education for all. Here we did it the old-fashioned way, with the governor and the Legislature setting policy.

We now have a governor who wants to institute universal pre-K education. Many legislators (most legislators, perhaps) and Grow are disagreeing with the governor. What are their reasons for disagreement?

1. School administrators don’t want to do it. Not too surprising. Most administrators don’t want to add new programs. And what administrators are saying is true. Universal pre-K is expensive and people will like it and there will be lots of pressure on districts to quickly offer it; we, as a state, will end up spending more money on kids’ education than we have before. It’s an expensive investment that will lead to an expensive new program. But I think it’s well worth it.

2. There isn’t, according to Grow, “universal belief among early-childhood experts” that universal pre-K would solve our gap in minority/majority education success. Granted. Which doesn’t say it won’t help. A lot.

3. There’s already a “nationally-lauded pre-K scholarship program for children of low-income families” in Minnesota. It’s good we started on this desirable road, but programs just for the poor have little political support and can eventually run out of funding. Programs tend to survive and thrive when all people benefit, not just the poor.

4. Four-year-olds may not be ready for school. This is the same argument that was offered around kindergarten and 5-year-olds. Problem is we’re much more excellence-oriented now than in the past. The halcyon days of kids just playing and not learning are gone.  Sure, some kids won’t be ready to socialize and be with other kids. But parents aren’t required to send them. And most parents are desperately seeking ways to help their kids gain social, emotional, and intellectual legs up. That’s what pre-K is for.

5. This will gobble up too much of the current surplus, which the Legislature wants to use instead to fund tax cuts in the 2016 session, just before running for reelection. Permit me another flashback: The last Minnesota governor faced with a large surplus (Ventura) gave it back to us in “Jesse checks” and tax cuts, thereby helping ensure that Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure headed downhill; he also helped along our Legislature’s rapid withdrawal of funding for public higher education. Higher earning Minnesotans pay around 1/3 less in taxes now than they did back then, but the demand to continue cutting taxes in Minnesota is a permanent feature of our political landscape.

We now have a governor insisting on instituting a massive and beneficial change in our state’s education system. We have the money. We can afford it. It benefits all kids, especially poorer kids. I choose not to call that pouting. I choose to call that leadership. For Minnesota’s sake, I sure hope Mark Dayton wins this argument.

Wy Spano is the director of the Master of Advocacy and Political Leadership Programat Metropolitan State University.