By Joe Gould, Legislative Affairs Specialist
Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton’s education budget was presented in bill form on Wednesday to the House Education Finance Committee. Sponsored by Committee Chair Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), HF844 reflects the governor’s goals to close the achievement gap by ramping up support for early learning, particularly for children who come from low-income families, said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
“In terms of closing achievement gaps, we are targeting funding to the students we believe that need it most,” she said.
Early Learning Focus
That amounts to what Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) are referring to as a “scaling up” of 4-year-old, half-day pre-kindergarten programs in the public schools over the next several years.
The goal, Cassellius said, is to develop a voluntary, pre-kindergarten option for school districts and parents to ensure that every 4-year-old has an opportunity to receive early learning education to prepare them for kindergarten. That would not eliminate the option for parents to enroll their children in non-public school early education. Those investments amount to $138 million increase in funding over the 2016-17 biennium.
The committee took no action. Loon would not rule out the bill ultimately becoming a vehicle for the omnibus education funding bill.
Breakfast & Readiness
The bill also calls for a $28.1 million increase to expand free in-school breakfast programs for pre-kindergarteners through third graders.
Those provisions drew questions from several committee members, whose concerns ranged from how a “scaling up” of pre-kindergarten in the public schools would impact school district expenditures and licensure issues for a new crop of teachers to whether the free breakfast expansion would prove to be an efficient use of dollars.
Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) believes many rural school districts will not be pleased to learn Dayton’s proposal would eliminate the School Readiness program that specifically targets low-income families in favor of the voluntary pre-kindergarten program that she said will also likely cause a bureaucratic licensing headache for many districts.
Also in Play
The bill’s companion, SF811, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood), was heard on Thursday by the Senate Education Committee.
Other provisions in both bills include:
- 1 percent increase in the per-pupil formula across all school districts, which Cassellius said helps keep districts fiscally sound to adjust for inflation. Many House and Senate members were critical that this is simply not enough.
- creation of a 0.5 per-pupil funding formula for each student enrolled in a free all-day, every day prekindergarten program. Many House and Senate members asked questions about how local districts are supposed to cover half of this cost.
- a requirement that schools that opt to create pre-k programs have a maximum child-to-staff ratio of 10:1.
- authorization of early learning scholarships for children from birth to age 5 who are not enrolled in the full-day prekindergarten program (scholarships are income-based, targeted to low income families).