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OUR OPINION: Dayton wrong on early-childhood education

Gov. Dayton, you should have listened to Art Rolnick.

If you had, you could have gotten everything you wanted: more money for early-childhood education, a bipartisan consensus at the Legislature and a legislative session that ended on time.

But maybe there's still hope—because Rolnick's still talking. And he's offering a logical path forward.

Mark DaytonRolnick is one of America's most influential advocates of quality early-childhood education. That's because he speaks not as an activist, but as a blue-chip economist—now with the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, previously as research director for Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

The research is unmistakeable, Rolnick claims: quality pre-schools help close the "achievement gap" between poor and middle-income children, the gap that is Minnesota and America's most significant educational problem.

And the earlier the pre-school starts, the better.

Given Rolnick's background, you might expect him to be supporting Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's insistence on public-school pre-K programs for all 4-year-olds.

But you'd be wrong, and Dayton and everyone else should understand why.

Rolnick (and many other early-childhood education advocates) thinks Dayton has seized the wrong high ground. For the governor's plan "is only for 4-year-olds," Rolnick said on Minnesota Public Radio last week. "We really have to start much earlier."

Plus, "it's a public-school-only approach," which would rob parents of their ability to choose. "We don't think one size fits all parents.

"And unfortunately, the governor's new program—which we are strongly questioning—is very expensive," because it calls for schools statewide to hire unionized pre-K teachers.

Far better to use the money to finance scholarships for low-income children—scholarships that could pay for quality pre-schools long before the youngsters turn 4.

"The governor's plan is universal in the sense that it includes all 4-year-olds," he said.

"Our scholarships can be universal, too. But the first dollars—we should make sure we first fund all our at-risk kids."

Minnesota already has pilot projects that do just that, and they've been successful enough to impress Republicans and Democrats alike.

That's where the governor should have staked his claim, Rolnick said.

In fact, that's the high ground the governor still should occupy. And maybe he will:

"Look, the governor has said, 'Early learning scholarships for our most at-risk kids would be a great compromise,'" Rolnick said on MPR.

"That is the obvious sweet spot."

It's the place Dayton could win over not only Rolnick, but also many school administrators and Democratic lawmakers, who don't think a new public-school entitlement for 4-year-olds is the right approach. It's also a position many Republicans would support.

In short, the governor should abandon his own approach in favor of the Rolnick plan. It would be both more popular and more effective; and in politics, that's a winning combination indeed.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald