Early Learning Scholarships vs. Universal Pre-K: Addressing the Education Gap

Special Report ** November 14, 2015

Give me four years to teach the children and the seed I have sown will never be uprooted.”  -Vladimir Lenin

Like Comrade Lenin, Governor Dayton understands that the key to controlling the hearts and minds of Minnesotans to is control education and that the longer the government can control education, the “better”.  In that vein, Governor Dayton, with the committed support of SD49 Senator Melisa Franzen and Representatives Paul Rosenthal and Ron Erhardt, has been working tirelessly to expand the size and scope of Minnesota’s government, insisting that we all provide what he calls “free” education to younger and younger Minnesotans.  Governor Dayton, of course, prefers to claim that he is trying to close the “achievement gap” and that he is doing it “for the children.” In truth, he and his legislative minions are trying to move Minnesota even closer to Lenin’s paternalistic dream of cradle to grave big government.   

In 2014, the legislature, at Governor Dayton’s urging, voted to dramatically expand the role of government in the lives of our children by providing “free” all-day Kindergarten for all Minnesota children.  Previously, Minnesota families had the option to choose either all-day or half-day Kindergarten for their children and only 54% chose to send their children to all-day Kindergarten.  Beginning in 2014, the first year of implementation, our Big Government liberals took away this choice, herding all of Minnesota’s children into all-day Kindergarten.  In 2014 these new mandates drove 99.6 percent of all Minnesota Kindergarteners into all-day Kindergarten.  Governor Dayton is very proud of this, as are his supporters in the education unions.

Not satisfied with this dramatic expansion of government, Governor Dayton has now set his sights on Minnesota’s three and four year olds.  Governor Dayton now wants to dramatically expand the state’s $280 million early childhood budget to ensure that the state has access to the hearts and minds of our three and four year olds.  Governor Dayton has made universal pre-K his pet project, leading one to the question of why we need “universal” pre-K when we already have a massive state-run scholarship program that pays for needy children to attend any pre-K program that their parents choose.  Minnesota’s taxpayers are currently spending in excess of $100 million per year funding two huge state scholarship programs, the Early Learning Scholarships Pathway I and II, each of which pay up to $7,500 for each eligible child to attend any pre-K program that they choose, including faith based programs.

Despite the successful Early Learning Scholarship programs, Governor Dayton continues to demand universal “free” government provided pre-K and he is so committed to this goal that he vetoed a $17 billion education bill because it did not include his pet project.  The governor blamed the Republicans for his veto, claiming that “they hate the public schools.”  A special session was averted by a revised education budget that does not include universal pre-K, but increases allocations for all early childhood programs by 52 percent, for a total of $280 million over the next two years.  The budget almost doubles funding for the state’s pre-K scholarship programs and includes $3.5 million for a new state bureaucracy to rate pre-K programs.   

Despite the dramatic increase in preschool spending, Governor Dayton is not done yet, pledging to continue his fight for universal pre-K.  This raises the question of what, really, is the Governor’s purpose of pushing early education?  Is it to level the playing field by providing additional opportunities for disadvantaged youth, as Governor Dayton claims?  Minnesota’s achievement gap is among the highest in the nation despite massive per student spending. 

The Minneapolis public schools spend an incredible $20,906 per student.  To put this in perspective, if Minneapolis were a state, it would have the highest per-pupil spending in the nation; just ahead of New York that spends $19,552 per pupil.  For that type of spending, New York is able to graduate 85.3% of all of its students, including 62.9% of its black students.  Florida, which places dead last in per pupil education spending at $8,371 graduates 86.5% of its high school students, including 64.5% of its black students.  Minneapolis public schools, despite its lavish educational spending, graduates an abysmal 59% of its students, including 17% of its black students.  

If the goal of the governor’s education power grab is to achieve a level playing field among minority students, the results of the Minneapolis public schools belie the claim that more government involvement in public education will net improved results. In 2011, the year that Governor Dayton took office, 42% of African American students in the Minneapolis public schools could read at grade level.  After four years of massive spending increases under Governor Dayton, that number has plummeted to a ridiculous 23% and at the high school level, just 16% of Minneapolis black students could read at grade level.   It bears noting that statewide, in 2013 only 22% of low income eighth graders and 16% of African American eighth graders were proficient at reading.  The numbers for math readiness are even more abysmal.  

The Minnesota Department of Education’s numbers show convincingly that the less time that students spend in our government education system, the better prepared that they are.  In 2013, 73 percent of the state’s Kindergarten aged students were on track with state mandated achievement targets indicates.  By the time that those students hit eighth grade, less than 50% statewide are on track.   It is clear that herding our children into more and more government programs supported by ever higher levels of tax dollars has not achieved the success that we were promised.  The results have been just the opposite - massive spending on government education programs is failing all of our students.  

Given the complete failure of increased government spending to “level the playing field,” I submit that the true purpose of Governor Dayton’s pet project is far more nefarious.  This entire program is designed not to improve our education system, but simply to increase the attendance roles of public education as a payoff for Governor Dayton’s greatest political supporters, the teachers union.  The broader goal is to add 47,000 four year olds to the ranks of the public schools.  With this increase in mandated consumers, Governor Dayton’s union supporters will enjoy a dramatic increase in the number of teachers and, not coincidentally, the number of dues-paying union members.  This increased government spending will also bring an ever-increasing need for even more state bureaucrats, more administrators and more programs, all in a never-ending cycle of tail chasing.  But don’t worry, Governor Dayton, Senator Franzen, Representative Erhardt, and Representative Rosenthal insist that all of these programs are “for the children” so money is no object.  With our Democratic leadership’s consistent push for a larger and larger government bureaucracy, one can legitimately ask, “Why would the Minnesota public schools be expected to perform better with pre-K education than they have done with the 13 grades that they already have?”