4 Year Olds At Heart Of Budget Impasse

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt joins students playing a learning game Thursday, May 28, 2015, at New Horizon Academy in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt joins students playing a learning game Thursday, May 28, 2015, at New Horizon Academy in St. Paul. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

An early-learning center visit Thursday reinforced the Republican House speaker’s resolve to offer scholarships for pre-kindergarten education instead of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s wish to pay for all Minnesota 4 year olds to attend school.

Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, visited a New Horizon Academy early-learning center in a poor St. Paul neighborhood Thursday, accompanied by a critic of the Dayton plan, former Federal Reserve Bank official and nationally known early-learning expert Art Rolnick.

Daudt and Rolnick later joined Dayton in negotiating education funding levels to be decided in a yet-unscheduled special legislative session to wrap up a two-year, $42 billion state budget.

How to help Minnesota children prepare for kindergarten has been a rift between Dayton and many lawmakers all year, and it remains the major stumbling block to arrange a special session funding education and a handful of other programs. Education funding makes up $17 billion of the state budget.

Daudt went from room to room at New Horizon, talking to teachers and children, then he plopped down on the floor of the preschool room where he watched four children play an educational game, telling them “good job” when they got an answer right.

“We owe it to those kids that are having the struggles and troubles to give them the head start and focus our attention there,” Daudt said about the need to prepare at-risk children like those attending the St. Paul facility.

While Dayton has the same goal, Daudt and Rolnick differ from the governor on how to achieve it.

The state already offers scholarships, and Rolnick said children from poor families who use them are seeing success.

“Our scholarship kids are starting school healthy and ready to learn,” he said. “They are doing as well as the majority kids.”

But, he said, the state needs to concentrate its limited funding on minority children. “It is about prioritizing our most at-risk program.”

The Dayton proposal, Rolnick said, would force all 4-year-olds to attend classes in public schools. Scholarships allow parents to pick public schools or facilities such as New Horizon, Daudt said, which is what his Republican House colleagues prefer.

On Wednesday night, Dayton said programs such as current scholarships and full-day kindergarten are helping, but the state needs to make more progress.

Dayton recalled his visit to an Apple Valley pre-kindergarten program last week in which children of different backgrounds were in the same class.

“There are benefits of having the kids grouped together,” Dayton said, with many poor kids but some whose families could afford to pay.

“The synergy of those 20 kids working with one another” was important, the governor said, with children from different ethnic, language and other backgrounds learning to work together.

Dayton vetoed education funding legislation last week because of the pre-kindergarten difference as well as other issues that he wanted to be in the bill, including funds for American Indian education and to reduce Head Start waiting lists.

He originally had sought $171 million more than was in a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-led House. The governor gradually reduced his demands, at one point going from all-day state-funded classes for all 4 year olds to half a day. And an hour before the Legislature had to adjourn for the year, he dropped his pre-kindergarten demand altogether, and sought just $25 million more than in the Legislature bill, but legislative leaders did not accept his offer.

Once he vetoed the education bill, he said that he would return to his half-day pre-kindergarten proposal and demand money for it.

On Wednesday, Dayton talked about both scholarships and his universal 4-year-old proposal working together. “It is not either-or, it is both.”

Daudt remained firm Thursday that scholarships are the way to go, but did not mind the disagreement.

“I think Minnesota deserves to have a debate like this,” Daudt said.

But with 10,288 state workers getting layoff notices Monday, in case state leaders do not pass the rest of the state budget in June, the question is how long the debate can last.