Charters and Preschool in Minnesota: An Opportunity?

There is a robust policy debate in Minnesota about preschool education: should we focus public funding on scholarships for at-risk three- and four-year-olds to attend high quality preschool programs, or should we provide universal preschool for all 4-year-olds?

And how much can Minnesota charter schools access Pre-K opportunities?

Minnesota law does allow charter schools to offer Pre-K and access state funding to do so. And automatic enrollment from charter Pre-K to charter kindergarten is allowed. But a July study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute called the climate in Minnesota “Not Hospitable” for charter schools to offer Pre-K (see pages 107 – 110). Ouch.

Why? Compared to K-12 funding levels, low Pre-K program funding makes offering Pre-K less attractive to charters; the size of the Pre-K program limits charter access to funding; and the funding, application, or approval process creates a barrier to charter access.

Recent changes by the Minnesota legislature effective August 1, 2015 may help a little. It is now clearer that a charter school preschool can apply for a Parent Aware Quality Rating and therefore accept three- and four-year-old students with Early Learning Scholarships.

But frankly, that’s not enough. That’s why in an article published this May by MinnPost, I suggested public school choice for Pre-Kindergarten as a way to solve the gridlocked preschool debate.

Parents, teachers, and school districts who want to create a public preschool program could apply as a nonprofit organization or school district to create a program for the coming school year. Preschool leaders would enter into a three-year contract with the Department of Education and commit to certain outcomes in their contract for each year. Preschool leaders would be held accountable for results, or their program might be closed by the department.

Public school choice meets the needs of competing parties. This is Pre-K Choice, not Universal Pre-K; costs will be far less, yet meet existing demand. Preschool leaders will be accountable for performance results. Public choice preschool programs are open to every child, with parental engagement a key motivating force. And data regarding demand and results will guide growth of tuition-free opportunities for the future.

Public school choice for preschool provides freedom to choose, effective education for every child, and efficient use of tax dollars. Most of all, it provides opportunity for all.