There’s a heated debate going on in Minnesota right now around early education, but somewhat surprisingly the debate is not about whether the state should invest in pre-K; people on both sides of the dispute want to invest money in the North Star State’s youngest learners. Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is proposing an unprecedented investment in universal pre-k for all 4-year-olds, while the GOP-controlled House is pushing to increase the state’s existing early learning scholarship program that provides vouchers to students from low-income families.

Regardless of their party affiliation, proponents of early education usually have a common end goal: prepare children for school and thus provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful adults. Research continually confirms that high-quality early education can and often does achieve this goal, but effectiveness varies by program. In fact, one of the most commonly cited statistics says there is a $7 dollar return on every dollar invested in early education, but the benefits vary significantly based on the quality of the program.

While there is growing consensus around what constitutes a high-quality program, one thing is clear: quality is not cheap. Effective teachers, small adult-child ratios, safe environments, and developmentally appropriate classrooms are all associated with better student outcomes — and these things are costly. But unfortunately, many state and local governments are unwilling or unable to devote sufficient funds to early education. Even though more and more states are jumping on the pre-K bandwagon, there is rarely enough investment to provide all four-year-olds in the state with high-quality services.

However, this year Minnesota has a rare opportunity: the state has a $1.9 billion budget surplus and early learning is the Governor’s top priority. Until now, Minnesota’s limited early learning budget has gone mostly to its scholarship program. The scholarships are essentially vouchers of up to $5,000 that low-income parents can use to send their children to school- or center-based pre-K — or even home-based child care. In an attempt to regulate quality, the state requires that scholarships only be used at locations that have been rated by the state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS), Parent Aware. The scholarship amount is higher for higher rated programs (but only up to that $5,000 ceiling).

The Republican-controlled House would like to increase spending on the scholarship program by $30 million, essentially doubling the current allocation. Right now, the scholarships reach only 10 percent of eligible children, so this funding boost would expand access. But the Governor has a different plan for the surplus. His budget asks for approximately $343 million this year and $914 million over the 2018-2019 biennium for free school-based pre-K for all children in Minnesota. He also proposes to keep the scholarship program funded at its current level. Tensions arose when neither house in the legislature included funding for universal pre-K in their budgets. (Senate Democrats instead allocated a small fraction of the Governor’s request– $65 million each year– to the state’s existing School Readiness program.)

How should we think about the standoff? There are merits to the scholarship approach, such as allowing parents to choose the program that best suits their families’ needs. But the program has significant shortcomings. One glaring problem is that the scholarships do not cover the full cost of attendance at many high-quality centers. As illustrated in this Hechinger Report article, the $5,000 maximum scholarship does not even cover half of tuition at some desirable programs. While some families may be able to pay the additional costs, high-quality programs will remain out of reach for the highest-need families. My colleague Conor Williams explains how this is a common problem with voucher programs.

Another issue is implementation. The scholarships are administratively burdensome, which discourages many families from participating. For one, many eligible families may not know about the scholarships or how to access them, especially families who aren’t proficient in English or who are new to the US. The scholarships are also tough on schools to navigate because they cannot predict how many students will enroll. Given the risk of under-enrollment, schools with tight budgets might be reluctant to set up pre-K classrooms, hire qualified teachers, and/or set aside the appropriate resources.

When Minnesota first began investing in public pre-K and resources were limited, the scholarship model may have seemed like a logical solution. It didn’t require costly infrastructure because it allowed families to participate in the existing system and it targeted the children who most needed services. But now there is so much more money on the table — over $1 billion.  Minnesota policymakers need to reconsider whether scholarships are the most effective method.

But noting the limits of the scholarship program is not the same thing as endorsing Gov. Dayton’s proposal. Universal school-based pre-K would be a heavy implementation lift for the state. Most schools do not have the space to accommodate more classrooms. While some districts, like St. Paul Public Schools, have already started implementing public pre-K for at-risk students, other districts are not as prepared. Let New York City’s experience be an example of how difficult it is to massively expand pre-K in a rushed timeline.

Also, Dayton’s plan would provide districts that opt into universal pre-K with half-day funding, but the schools would be required to offer a full-day program. So the schools would have to come up with the funds for the rest of the day. There is valid concern, though, among stakeholders that universal pre-K will be much more expensive in reality than Dayton is letting on.

The Early Education Initiative at New America is in the process of conducting a case study on Minnesota’s early education landscape, with the specific focus on preK-3rd grade policies in relation to literacy. We’ll be following developments in the state closely, so look out for our report later this summer.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Abbie Lieberman

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst on the Early & Elementary Education Policy team at New America, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.