ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Facing financial constraints and the specter of last year’s failed push, Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled a new, scaled-back proposal on Tuesday for a statewide preschool system in Minnesota.
The governor’s supplemental budget includes spending $25 million in the next year for a voluntary prekindergarten program that would allow about 3,700 more 4-year-olds to attend preschool. His budget also proposes $100 million for the program in the next two-year budget cycle.
The pared-back plan is a recognition of the limitations posed even by a seemingly large budget surplus and the political difficulty his push for universal preschool faced last year. That broader proposal was rebuffed by GOP lawmakers and Democrats alike, citing concerns about space requirements, costs and demand by parents.
Dayton vowed to resume his push for a more comprehensive, statewide preschool program next year if the economic outlook improves.
“Sometimes you can make progress in big giant steps, and sometimes you have to make progress in slow, steady, incremental steps,” said Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, whom Dayton has charged with leading the administration’s early education efforts.
The governor’s budget includes a variety of proposals for early childhood initiatives. He is renewing calls to expand a child care tax credit to 92,000 families and offer an estimated 18,000 families extra help for educational expenses. He is also pushing to spend $94 million to increase the maximum amount of reimbursements that can be paid to providers participating in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program, which helps parents who are working or going to school to pay for child care.
Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Maplewood Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he applauds the governor’s push for a voluntary preschool program and believes a holistic approach is best for preparing students.
“It all contributes to the probability that a young person will be ready for kindergarten and will be likely to succeed on their journey through school and ultimately walking the stage at graduation,” he said.
For his universal preschool program, Dayton has proposed awarding funding to districts or individual schools based on poverty rates and the availability of high-quality programs in an area. The funding would be split between urban, suburban and outstate Minnesota school districts and charter schools and would allow an estimated 13 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds to attend an early learning program.
School districts and charter schools offering preschool programs would be required to provide at least 350 hours of instruction each school year under Dayton’s plan.
The governor’s proposed universal preschool program last year gained little traction, but Dayton’s approach this year could appeal to Republicans who have wanted a more targeted approach to early education funding.
“This is a step forward for my stated goal and still one of my very top priorities of universal pre-K,” Dayton said. “I won’t be satisfied until we reach that point.”
As he’s said in the past, the governor wants to diversify and increase the state’s teacher workforce. He’s proposed approximately $12 million for each of the next three years that would in part lower tuition for teachers who agree to work in areas where there are shortages and also allow licensed teachers to more easily obtain licenses for other subjects or specializations.
He also has proposed spending $2 million in funding for Full-Service Community Schools, which serve as one-stop shops for academic, social and health needs — such as after-school programs, medical and dental services and resource centers — for parents and students.
The governor didn’t include increase funding for school counselors, of which there’s a shortage in the state. Wiger, the Senate education chairman, said overall he was very pleased with the budget but would like see funding for counselors.
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