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Guest Commentary: Increasing opportunities for kids and families everywhere in our state

In September, more than 837,000 Minnesota students went back to school, including 65,000 kindergartners. For the third year, more than 99.6 percent of those kindergartners will attend school all-day, free of charge. And their parents can be certain their children are receiving the best opportunity to succeed in school and life.

For the first time this year, 3,300 4-year-olds will be joining those kindergarteners, as the first group of preschoolers to benefit from the voluntary preschool program championed by Gov. Mark Dayton and me over the past two years. Unfortunately, Republicans in the Legislature didn't provide enough funding to meet the need — with nearly twice as many schools applying than could be funded this year.

That means more than 6,837 4-year-olds across the state won't have the same opportunity. Because not enough funding was invested, many families will choose to keep their 4-year-olds at home this year, or enroll them in expensive child care. For a young family earning $60,000 a year, with two working parents and two children under the age of 5, high-quality preschool can consume up to 40 percent of a family's income. Minnesota parents shouldn't have to choose between making ends meet and providing their children with the high-quality education they need to succeed in school and in life.

For the past few months, Gov. Dayton and I have traveled the state, talking with Minnesotans in all 87 counties about what's working, what's not, and how we can do better. One of the things I've been especially interested in is talking with parents, teachers and school leaders about how preschool programs are working in the schools that received funding, and understanding the need in schools that were denied that opportunity.

In September, I visited Park Side Elementary in Marshall, one of the schools that wasn't able to get funding this year because not enough was invested to meet the need. There, Tiffany Teske, who runs the early learning programs at Marshall Public Schools, told me about how hard it is to have to tell a parent that their child can't access the same opportunities, just because of where they live.

"You meet those families, see those beautiful faces and hear their stories," she said. "Everyone wants the same thing for their children, which is a good education so that they'll do well."

Gov. Dayton and I couldn't agree more. Every family ought to have the same opportunity to give their kids the best possible start in school and in life, regardless of their zip code. That's why we've pushed to offer voluntary early learning to every family, and every 4-year-old, in the state, and it's why we'll keep pushing to deliver that opportunity to Minnesotans across the state.

The opportunity of voluntary preschool gives kids a jump start when they get to kindergarten, because they know what a school day is like, and the expectations are in the classroom. It gives them a boost in reading and math, having already learned from high-quality, fully-licensed teachers. It gives a boost to our economy, by putting the best-prepared people in the jobs that need them. And it gives a boost to families across the state, who would otherwise be forced to leave the workforce to care for their 4-year-old, or pay for expensive preschool or daycare out of pocket, oftentimes without the benefits that teacher-led preschool brings to kids' learning and growth.

These opportunities are not trivial. They can make a difference of thousands of dollars in a family's paycheck. They can make the difference in closing the achievement gap. They make all the difference in giving every kid a strong start in school and in life.

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, Minnesota ought to be a place where "all the children are above-average." We can't let other states — or countries — outpace us in providing opportunities that challenge the essential strength of our state: our well-educated, hard working people.

Every 4-year-old, and every family, deserves the same opportunities, regardless of where they live. The 3,300 4-year-olds getting the opportunity this year are lucky — they'll have an incredible head start in school and life, while their families save thousands of dollars. All families should have the same chance. That's why Gov. Dayton and I will keep fighting, to offer the opportunity of free, full-day pre-kindergarten to every family that wants it.

Tina Smith is Minnesota's 48th Lt. Governor. Since taking office in January 2015, Tina has focused on building an economy that works for all Minnesotans — championing issues including rural broadband internet access, expanding access to early learning, and supporting statewide job creation.