Free Pre-K is a Start, But More MN Families Need Help

Minnesota's new voluntary free pre-K is being called a step in the right direction, but perhaps not enough to help rural and lower-income working families.

Governor Mark Dayton’s move this week to provide free pre-kindergarten for thousands of four-year-olds is being called a good step by child-care proponents, who also say the state needs to do a lot more. Minnesota lawmakers okayed about $25 million to fund free pre-K, for about 3,300 children in 74 school districts. But about 60 percent of all the districts that applied for the aid were denied.

Bharti Wahi, the executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota, said early-childhood education options are still seriously limited for families in rural parts of the state.

“In Greater Minnesota, there is a shortage of high-quality, affordable child-care options,” she explained. “And for working families and low-income families, they just maybe need a more robust option.”

She suggested state lawmakers could invest more in the Child Care Assistance Program. But others, including Republican State Representative Steve Drazkowski, disagree with the free pre-K idea. In a statement this week, he said, “It’s the responsibility of families to raise children, not government.”

Wahi argued that research shows state investments in early childhood education help working parents keep their jobs, while giving the youngest Minnesotans learning opportunities with lifelong benefits.

“Much in the way that we understand that it also takes a village to support our elderly, our most vulnerable, all children need support,” she said. “And they are more prepared for kindergarten, they do better academically, socially.”

The money for the voluntary pre-K program will be available for schools starting this fall. Minnesota lawmakers are considering a special session starting as early as next week, as some want the state budget surplus to go toward universal pre-K.

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