Minnesota, under Gov. Mark Dayton, initiated universal, all-day, public school kindergarten. The Adams-ECM Editorial Board endorsed that initiative as a wise investment. The former governor also proposed universal education for four-year-olds.

Our view is adding another age level to public education for all students is a daunting fiscal and operational task. Alternatives exist.

Minnesota has a major achievement gap between students by race and socio-economic status. The inability to close that gap is an economic, cultural and civic loss. Art Rolnick, a retired senior vice chair and director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a fellow at the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota, is a proponent of early childhood education as necessary to closing the achievement gap. Rolnick’s plan deserves consideration.

Rolnick’s proposal is based on research: Early childhood education pays off economically. The follow-up of a well-structured investment in a three- and four-year-old program would result in greater school and life success. Rolnick links program investment to government cost savings and greater economic advantage later in life.

Proposals center on non-traditional public school delivery models taking advantage of existing preschool childcare services but adding requirements for educational standards and performance. Minnesota invests $70 million a year in a comparable program started by Dayton and covers about 11% of eligible children. Rolnick estimates that $400 million a year would extend the program to all who qualify and want to enroll.

This would be an optional program for parents. It is an open enrollment model allowing attendance at any educationally certified preschool. Any private, public, religion-based preschool/child care service could qualify to provide preschool education by meeting clearly stated standards for teaching/learning and oversight. The state would pay the tuition.

Some of what Rolnick advocates exists under state law. However, there are questions that lawmakers and the Department of Education should examine.

The target student population should be defined by socio-economic criteria and available statewide. The standards for certifying programs must be thoroughly defined. The oversight structure to insure compliance must be funded and implemented. Telling the difference between pre-K, publicly funded education and personally funded child care is a major issue. Parents paying for child care will look with suspicion on publicly paid preschool. The difference in the programs and the program access criteria have to be sound and clear. Teacher qualifications must be defined and required.

The impact of publicly funded preschool on private child care businesses must be assessed. Rules and regulations for the transition of existing private programs to enable students to access state funding must be well defined.

Church-based programs would be eligible but we advise caution. Separation of church and state through careful monitoring is possible but the foundation provided by the state must be learning related, not religion related.

Public school alternatives must be a part of the state-funded model. Parents who choose a public school pre-K program should be able to access that program with state dollars at a local public school.

Early childhood education is a linked process for life-long learning, not a childhood event. Coordinated follow through is critical. Evaluation and assessment (a data-based assessment) of a new pre-K effort is critical. Evaluation of impact through the K-12 grades is critical.

There must be no confusion between child care services and certified learning programs. Minnesotans will find it difficult to accept selective, social-economic, state-funded child care when they’re still paying for their children. The program requires uniform curriculum, components for the learning day, teacher qualifications and measured outcomes quantifying success.

If religion-based providers participate, separation of religion-based goals and instruction from public goals and instruction must be clear and identifiable.

Rolnick’s plan refers to state dollars as “tuition.” Others would call it vouchers.

The value of voucher-based programs for K-12 public education remains unresolved. Rolnick’s approach to preschool education offers a chance to test vouchers on a limited basis.

— An opinion of the Adams Publishing – ECM Editorial Board. Reactions welcome. Send to editorial.board@ecm-inc.com.

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