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Pre-K teachers may lose business with Gov. Dayton's pre-school proposal

Mahube-Otwa teacher Karla Brogren helps student Maci Baker count a die during a Head Start class last year. With Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed preschool plan, it could open more opportunities for more 4-year-olds, but some teachers are opposed. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

If Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has his way, all 4-year-olds will soon be going to school within their school districts, all day, every day.

The creation of a universal pre-k system throughout the state would cost roughly $348 million and would be funded through the state’s surplus.

Although it’s questionable that the proposal would pass, given it is a Republican-controlled House right now, the goal is not likely to die even if it’s shot down this year.

The idea behind this proposal would be to provide a free pre-school education to all 4-year-olds across the state, thereby attempting to even the playing field for all children heading into kindergarten, including those who currently do not receive a pre-school education.

Rep. Paul Marquart and Sen. Kent Eken, who are both democrats, and Rep. Steve Green, republican, will be attending a town hall meeting in Detroit Lakes Monday night at the Ecumen Conference Center at 7 p.m.

The event, co-hosted by the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters, is an opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions on all issues, but attendees can bet they’ll hear a lot on the push for universal pre-k.

For some, it seems like a win-win, but it is an idea that not everybody is happy about.

The drawbacks

Offering free preschool is likely to sound great to a lot of Minnesota families that currently pay out of pocket to educate their 4-year olds, however, it would also leave a lot of private preschool teachers and daycare providers out of work, or at least struggling to make their bottom lines.

But according to Mary Rotter, who owns Laker Prep Preschool in Detroit Lakes, it isn’t solely about job security for professionals like her.

She says while she thinks it’s great that the governor wants to put more money towards early childhood education, she believes that a more one-size-fits all, standardized approach is big mistake.

“I’m for parent choice,” said Rotter, “and the biggest thing is, all children learn differently, families have different schedules and needs, and a one-fit model is not the answer.”

The Detroit Lakes School District does offer a pre-school under its umbrella, which is held at the Lincoln Education Center, but there is also a large amount of children whose parents purposefully choose other options that are either private or in church and home settings.

Educators within these early childhood education settings are given the latitude to create their own, unique learning environment for the children they serve, which Rotter says should not be taken away.

“I work hard to be the best that I can be and to provide the highest quality care and education,” said Rotter, who is rated at the top of a statewide system that is designed to rate childcare and preschool providers such as herself.

The federally funded group Parent Aware also helps these private educators reach goals and standards that help ensure 4-year-olds become kindergarten-ready.

Beth Gailfus, preschool teacher at First Lutheran’s Kids First Preschool in Detroit Lakes, says her program would be severely affected by the change and believes it would translate into much-cherished local programs and childcare providers shutting down.

“Many of us went through the voluntary Parent Aware process to become aligned with curriculum and what the state was looking for,” she said. “And we did that so that we could get funding dollars in part to provide scholarships to families who needed it.”

If catching the 4-year-olds who are falling through the cracks is the goal, say Rotter and Gailfus, why not just provide more money for scholarships?

Parent Aware for School Readiness Executive Director Ericca Maas says their group’s goal is to educate the public on the issue and how it could affect local communities.

“We want to make sure that the system is fair and that it allows all types of providers to have a meaningful role in providing care to young children,” said Maas. “We can’t have just a program for 4-year-olds; there are other children to think about.”

Maas says many families love having their children in one spot at a daycare. It means one pickup/drop off point, and it means siblings can stay together longer before they’re off to kindergarten.

And while families would still have the option to enroll their children in these private settings rather than the public pre-k, the idea of it being free will certainly prompt many to go public.

“So we need to look at some of the unintended consequences of that,” said Maas, who says that would very likely force many of those private businesses to shut down, ultimately taking away options for parents who want them.

Would it soften the blow for these private early childhood educators if they were given jobs at the school district to help the program there?

“It might,” said Gailfus. “But what would their programs look like? What is their plan? Where would they put the children? There are so many questions that need to be answered.”

Leah Pigatti, executive director of Mahube-Otwa, which oversees Head Start in Detroit Lakes, says she isn’t at all against implementing universal pre-k programs, but she also has concerns.

“I think everybody is in favor of providing a preschool experience for every child,” said Pigatti, “but I do think that the way we do it has to be individualized for families and children.”

Pigatti, who works with a lot of families with specific financial and emotional needs, says Head Start offers a lot of programs that cater to those needs and ultimately help children succeed.

For many of her children, a standardized preschool program would not work nearly as well and hopes those programs would not be taken away.

“As a community, we need to come together and work collaboratively to figure out what is the best placement for our 4-year-olds,” said Pigatti, “and I really hope legislators look at all sides of this issue.”

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