Education

Minnesota Governor Wants To Spend Budget Surplus On Universal Pre-K

CREDIT: AP/Jim Mone

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) talks with five-year-old Diante

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) has proposed spending nearly a fifth of his state’s budget surplus on creating a universal preschool program for Minnesota’s 4 year olds. That would make it one of just a handful of states to offer universal, full-day pre-K.

At a visit to a preschool classroom on Friday, Dayton called on state lawmakers to pass $348 million in new spending for every public school in the state so they can create preschool programs. That would represent about a fifth of the state’s projected $1.9 billion surplus and is the biggest general fund increase he’s put forward this year. He’s currently focusing on access for all of the state’s 4 year olds, although he said he would be open to more funding for younger ages.

The governor’s administration estimates that 47,300 preschoolers would be covered in the first year of the program, which would expand to 57,000 after that. Minnesota currently ranks 50th nationally for its share of students attending full-day preschool and 40th for 4 year olds’ access to programs.

Passing Dayton’s proposed funding would make Minnesota the 10th state to have a universal preschool program, though it’s unclear if the proposal will become law since Republicans control the state House. But even if it does pass, many of the states that have preschool programs don’t actually fund them enough to claim universal enrollment. In New York, for example, legislation passed in 1997 calling for universal preschool but less than half of its 4 year olds are enrolled thanks to funding troubles, and even those children tend to be in half-day programs. Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont are the only states with more than 70 percent of their 4 year olds enrolled in programs funded by the state; Georgia also claims high rates of enrollment.

Studies of these states’ programs, as well as other successful city-level initiatives, show that high-quality preschool can come with huge gains for the children who attend and economies as a whole. Children who go to Georgia’s programs end up with significantly better language and math skills, while Oklahoma’s program has led to improvements in cognitive, academic, and emotional skills. A high-quality program in Chicago was found to increase children’s earnings later in life and reduce their chances of becoming incarcerated, which also saves the city about $11 for every dollar it spends on it. Other studies have found savings of $7 per dollar spent and improvements in human capital, mobility, and economic output. It is also a boon to working parents, particularly mothers: mothers with regular child care arrangements are twice as likely to stay in their jobs, and fully funding early childhood education would increase their employment by up to 10 percent.

Yet nationwide, just 28 percent of 4 year olds are enrolled in programs and the country ranks 26th among developed peers in enrollment. It also ranks 21st for the share of GDP spent on early childhood education. President Obama has proposed creating a nationwide universal preschool program and included $75 billion in his budget to fund it.

Dayton’s push for preschool comes a year after he implemented all-day kindergarten statewide. Just 11 states require full-day kindergarten, while six have no kindergarten requirements at all. Before the legislature passed $134 million for kindergarten, just 54 percent of Minnesota’s children had access, but today the administration says that 99.6 percent are enrolled.