St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 19
The case for universal pre-K remains thin
Gov. Mark Dayton may be willing to force a special session over universal Pre-K for 4-year-olds, cited in his veto letter as his No. 1 legislative priority, but the governor has failed to make a persuasive case for it.
Both houses of the Minnesota Legislature passed an education finance bill Monday, the chaotic final day of this year's regular legislative session. Dayton has promised to veto it. In his veto letter, he notes that the bill omits funding for a number of projects that he believes will help close the so-called achievement gap between white students and students of color. Dayton's letter decries the absence -- despite, he said, his willingness to move from a full-day to half-day approach -- "of any version of voluntary, universal pre-kindergarten, which will help 47,000 4-year-olds" and address the gap.
As we understand them, Dayton's intentions are good enough, and some of the specific, highly targeted programs he wants funded -- including the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood -- may well help in progress toward closing the gap.
But universal pre-K -- adding hundreds of millions of dollars of permanently increasing permanent spending, regardless of need -- would spread an expensive, thin blanket over the whole state, rather than wrapping more layers around a smaller number of kids who need much more.
"The high return to the public is in investing in our most at-risk children," Art Rolnick, former research director at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, now with the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, told us last month.
In the study that made Rolnick a national leader in the fields of child development and social policy, "we got an 18 percent inflation-adjusted return when you invest in our most at-risk kids," he said.
Further, studies emphasize the value of starting earlier, he said -- noting initiatives that begin with pre-natal programs.
The debate Minnesotans heard in recent months cited the data, indeed, but often used findings to support broad notions about the value of early education and closing the achievement gap, rather than the specifics of the universal approach and the tradeoffs it involves. The sums are large enough -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- and the stakes high enough -- an achievement gap that's debilitating to individuals and also threatens Minnesota's economic competitiveness -- that big changes should proceed on specific merits, not broad notions.
Certainly, there's value in high-quality Pre-K experiences for our children. Such access, however, needn't be a centrally directed, one-size-fits-all mandate from the state. Far better, many think, is a system that builds on strong elements in place, including scholarships, Parent Aware ratings, a network of private providers and other options that offer the advantage of parental choice and market forces.
There are still more nuances to consider, suggests Arthur J. Reynolds of the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor in the Institute of Child Development. "We need to have really the best of both the universal and the targeted if we want to reach the goal of all children school-ready by 2020."
"A universal system that then is tailored to the individual needs of families," he told us, "is really the only way that's going to get all kids school-ready."
Further, not enough weight is being given "to the fact that the state is so far behind other states" in access to such programs, Reynolds said. Access to high-quality programs "needs to be an issue for all families, and that could gain broader support as time goes on."
Despite the brilliance and dedication of many educators and administrators, big bureaucratic systems -- which our public schools generally are -- are too easily co-opted by interests that may or may not coincide with the interests of children. So it's difficult to see how bolting a whole new expensive and centralized system onto an old expensive centralized system is a good idea.
Meanwhile, the amended bill, according to the Session Daily, retains a House of Representatives provision that would increase funding for early- education scholarships for low-income families, as well as a Senate provision for increased funding for School Readiness early-learning programs.
For now, that approach makes the most sense for Minnesota.
Rochester Post-Bulletin, May 20
Session's end brings little to celebrate
No one appears to be walking away happy from this year's legislative session.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, may be calling the session a success because House Republicans were able to block a gas tax hike supported by Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats, but that can't truly be seen as much of a victory in the end. The Republican-controlled House was unable to push through a proposed $2 billion tax cut, making for disappointments on both sides.
Earlier in the session, we had hoped a $1.89 billion surplus would help grease the wheels of compromise. After all, the fall campaign season had many lawmakers predicting there would be a limited surplus, if any, but there still would be a need to address the state's crumbling transportation infrastructure.
Months later, the road and bridge issues are meagerly funded to keep the Minnesota Department of Transportation running without providing meaningful improvements, and lawmakers left $1 billion on the table to address it in 2016. The plan evidently is to use the remaining surplus for future transportation needs, tax cuts or other uses.
That's when Dayton chimed in, emphasizing the Senate and House failed to fund one of his key priorities — universal preschool.
As a result, the session closed with all sides failing to see key objectives fulfilled. While finger-pointing among House and Senate lawmakers ramped up within hours of the session's adjournment, there is little they can do but look ahead. They did their job by passing a $42 billion budget in the time allowed.
The governor, on the other hand, could do something and is acting on it. Following up on his veto threat in the final days of the session, Dayton said Tuesday he is rejecting the $17 billion education funding bill to seek more school funding.
While Dayton initially raised the likelihood of a veto in his attempt to push universal preschool, he said Tuesday he had dropped the mandate and lowered his expectation to a $525 million increase in school funding, which is $125 million more than the House and Senate approved and $25 million more than Dayton said House Republicans offered in a compromise attempt.
As passed, the education bill promised an estimated 1.5 percent increase in per-student funding for schools. Dayton said his last compromise offer provided a 2 percent increase.
The veto, however, could put everything in limbo.
Dayton vowed Tuesday to make sure education funding doesn't drop below what passed this week, which added $400 million to current spending. "Nothing within the $400 million bill that passed will be taken away," the governor told reporters Tuesday after announcing his veto plan.
We hope that's true. Rochester Public Schools has been planning for an estimated 1 percent increase in discussing an upcoming operating referendum request, so the added funding in the bill that passed would be beneficial. Following the veto, any increase is on hold until an agreement is reached, which leaves school districts nothing to do but wait.
While waiting another year to see the transportation debate continue is disappointing, it would be even more disturbing to put school funding in jeopardy without a compromise.
We're hoping it doesn't come to that and all parties involved can find a way to fund education before the new state budget takes effect in July.
In a year with bipartisan disappointments, we'd hate to see schools end up the biggest losers.
The Free Press of Mankato, May 21
Lake Crystal cleanup is a model
While the governor and legislators from both parties in rural Minnesota battled over new water quality rules that conflicted with farm practices, a group of community members in Lake Crystal was busy getting to the bottom of the pollution problem.
The Crystals Water Project is a volunteer group of interested landowners and lake property owners who have taken steps to help clean up Crystal Lake and Loon Lake in Lake Crystal. They recently raised $13,000 to hire a commercial fishing company to remove some 50,000 pounds of rough fish from each of the lakes.
Rough fish are known to be bottom feeders and thereby stir up lake bottom mud and nutrients that can damage water quality and create ugly and dangerous algae blooms. The group has also worked with the city of Lake Crystal to paint 70 storm drains in the city a bright blue and discourage people from allowing leaves and grass clippings to be drained directly into the lake.
The group is also working with the Blue Earth County Soil and Water Conservation Service to advise farmers on drainage, runoff, tilling and fertilizer practices. They are working with the county to prevent sloughing and erosion problems on Ditch 56 which drains directly into the lakes.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has said Ditch 56 is the primary reason for much of the lakes' problems. The local volunteer group and the soil conservation service volunteers are working to change land use on agriculture and city land. Some of the problem with the lakes comes from the draining of lawns and fertilizers from urban properties as well. The group will be setting up a nutrient island in the lake this year that is designed to soak up excess nutrients.
But the Crystal Waters group could be a model for how all of Minnesota could solve this problem. It seems the community based approach has some merit over the government mandated approach. There need to be minimum mandates, and recent buffer strip legislation is a good first step, but the Lake Crystal group seems to be engaging all the stakeholders.
The group reports they're making incremental progress. The Department of Natural Resources is helping by restocking the lakes with game fish.
The cleanup of the lakes not only impact those local users, but because it drains into Minneopa Creek, it impacts water quality in the entire watershed.
The Crystals Water Project group deserve praise for leading the effort. But they've also been somewhat successful getting others to buy into the idea that water quality matters to everyone.