08/11/2016

Minn. pre-K expansion: A good start that needs more

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Minnesota is launching a first-ever round of state-funded preschool, and AFT affiliates are among the many groups calling the pre-K expansion a necessary start that demands aggressive follow-through by the state Legislature so that even more kids can benefit.

A total of 74 districts will share in the $25 million preschool appropriation, Gov. Mark Dayton announced on Aug. 8. The funding will allow 3,300 children to enroll in free, voluntary prekindergarten. However, Dayton was adamant that the program must grow and grow soon—applications from more than 100 districts were turned down due to lack of money.

"The fact that more than half could not be funded to me is the impetus for why the program needs to be expanded," Dayton told reporters at a news conference.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht, who is an AFT vice president, called the governor's plan a "groundbreaking" effort to "improve the educational outcomes of thousands of students and accelerate Minnesota's efforts to reduce opportunity gaps." But Specht, too, raised deep concerns about the scope of the effort. "It's simply too small," she said. "Next year, educators will be back at the Legislature calling for changes so thousands more deserving Minnesota children can get access to high-quality pre-K through their neighborhood public schools."

Last year, Minnesota was ranked 50th in the nation for access to full-day early learning programs. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Book, 55 percent of Minnesota's 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in any form of prekindergarten. The new program is targeted to schools that serve high numbers of low-income students in areas where there may be limited access to other high-quality prekindergarten programs. A breakdown of first-round recipients is available from Dayton's office.

[Mike Rose, Education Minnesota]