Early Learning: universal pre-K and scholarships

/ 20 February 2015 / Shawna

In February of 2015, Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL—St. Paul) introduced HF46, which establishes and funds a state wide universal all-day preschool program for four-year olds not receiving an early learning scholarship. Author, Rep. Murphy, told us that she believes voluntary pre-K should be available for four year olds across Minnesota. If we choose to invest in early education, pre-K is proven and it’s reach is greater than scholarships alone.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of universal preschool was illustrated by an example during testimony. Some recently-immigrated families do not choose to use daycare for their children. However, many of these kids are English language learners who would benefit greatly from pre-K. These children’s parents are much more likely to put their children on a bus with his or her siblings to attend a 4-year-olds’ program than apply for a scholarship to attend preschool.

Support was heard from teachers, parents, and school administrators, including the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association. Concerns were heard from Steve Williams, owner of Especially for Children Childcare Centers, and Erica Moss of Parent Aware. Their concerns focused squarely on the alternative; early learning scholarships. They both pleaded, “fund the child, not the institution,” and spoke of their criteria for high quality programs.

This is perhaps one of the biggest debates of the session and interestingly, both scholarships and universal pre-K are provided for in the Governor’s budget. In fact, some authors of the early-learning scholarships legislation are co-author’s on this bill. Can either of these programs succeed without the other? And is one solution actually better than the other?

The scholarship program has also proven successful at targeting kids in need and offering parents a choice of high quality programs. Steve Williams pointed out that in many parts of the state, private preschool programs have been very strategic about their locations and facilities. Those facilities are more easily accessible and already adapted to very young children than the district may be able to provide.

In other communities, a Parent Aware preschool program may not yet exist! This is yet another example where a cookie-cutter approach to statewide policy just might not work. As we moved away from teaching to the mean toward individualization and even greater differentiation, laws are also evolving away from cookie cutter approaches toward increasing flexibility and options.