Photo Source: South Washington County Schools
Governor Dayton at Newport Elementary School. Photo Source: South Washington County Schools

On a recent visit to Newport Elementary School, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton sat on the floor shaking hands with 4-year-olds.

“You look like you’re 65,” one little boy said, according to the StarTribune.

“Close. I’m 68,” Dayton said.

Dayton wasn’t reaching out to future voters — or running a guess-my-age contest. He was making a bold policy pitch: Offer every 4-year-old in the state universal access to full-day preschool programs.

For free.

It’s an exciting proposal that could reverse a troubling trend.

As a fact sheet from the governor’s office explains, “A new report from EdWeek shows that Minnesota currently ranks 50th in the nation in access to all-day pre-kindergarten programming.”

The good news is, “Minnesota could be among the first states in the country to offer free, full-day early learning programs,” a press release from the governor’s office says, “if a proposal from Governor Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Senate becomes law this session.” 

“At Newport Elementary, which offers half-day preschool, teachers notice a big difference between the classroom performance of students who went to preschool and those who didn’t,” an NPR report explains.

“It almost seems unfair that students are entering kindergarten on an uneven playing field,” Brittany Vasecka, a Newport Elementary preschool teacher, says in the report. “It really needs to be that all 4-year-olds are given equal opportunity in education so that they’re better prepared.”

State Senator Susan Kent, who joined in Dayton’s preschool visit, noted, “If Minnesota is going to continue to be a national leader in educational attainment, we need to ensure that preschool is available across the state. Unfortunately the current early learning systems are fragmented which is why we need to bring universal, voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds into our public system to benefit our youngest learners and families regardless of income.”

To pay for universal access, Dayton wants to spend $343 million — money from an expected state budget surplus of $1.9 billion, the NPR report says. Some 47,300 children would enroll in the first year. And over several more years, a total of 57,000 children across the state would be enrolled.

Dayton’s proposal would also address a key challenge for parents: the high cost of child care.

“Right now, Minnesota is the third-most expensive state in the nation for child care. On average, child care for one 4-year-old in Minnesota costs $901 per month, or $10,812 per year. Helping parents avoid those costs, while ensuring kids are receiving high-quality learning opportunities all day long, is an investment that will pay off for tens of thousands of Minnesota families, and produce better results for our students,” the press release says.

As the StarTribune reports, not everyone supports Dayton’s plan.

“This year, Dayton must navigate the proposal through a GOP-led House, which has different priorities for both the budget surplus and in state management of schools. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other Republicans, while calling universal preschool a worthy goal, have also suggested some means testing might be needed.”

Dayton, however, continues to call for free, universal access.

“We have already seen the tremendous successes of all-day kindergarten, which got underway just this year,” he says in the press release. “But we have a lot more work to do to narrow Minnesota’s achievement gap, and provide excellent educations for every student in Minnesota. That work has to start now, and it must begin with our youngest learners.”