Minnesota's march toward all-day kindergarten, fueled to date by school districts or parents willing to pay extra, would become an option for more low-income children who can't afford it if Gov. Mark Dayton has his way.

Dayton has proposed a $33 million plan to fund full-day kindergarten for low-income students -- the largest piece in his education plan. It would be the biggest funding boost to kindergarten in a decade.

Minnesota, which funds half-day kindergarten, is one of about a dozen states without extra funding for full-day programs. Early education advocates say this latest state push signals that Minnesota is a step closer to following states such as Wisconsin and North Dakota, where all-day, every-day kindergarten is state-supported.

"We're nearing the tipping point," said Rep. Mindy Greiling, D-Roseville. "The time is almost here where it's going to be demanded by families."

But Dayton's plan could lose out to other priorities for the Republican-controlled Legislature as the state wrestles with a $5 billion state deficit.

"We're dealing with budget constraints probably worse than at times we've been considering this issue before," said Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, education committee chair. "We should look carefully at where we're investing our money so that we are sure the evidence shows it gets the results."

Even if kindergarten doesn't get state help this year, "we're on that funding path," said P. Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association. "People on both sides of the aisle are realizing the importance of all-day kindergarten and early education."

Lag in state funding

In the last five years, more schools have offered all-day, every-day kindergarten. According to the state, 269 districts and charter schools out of 417 offer all-day kindergarten this year at no additional cost. Another 58 districts and charters offer it for a fee.

Studies show that all-day, every-day kindergarten leads to higher academic achievement, reduced achievement gaps, better student attendance and faster gains in literacy and language, according to the Minneapolis Foundation.

For Christy Vaillant, it was an easy choice to pay $330 a month for her daughter to attend all-day school at Rosemount's Parkview Elementary.

"I knew she would benefit from it," she said. "I think a lot of people think full-day is half-day with another half day of babysitting. It's not."

Vaillant said her 5-year-old is further along than older siblings who were in half-day programs, already reading at nearly a second-grade level.

Even parents such as Nicole McKenzie, who chose not to send her 6-year-old to all-day kindergarten at Lakeville's Crystal Lake Elementary, say there's a value in extra schooling. It's just not best for McKenzie's daughter, who she wants home more. "I love spending time with her," she said.

More districts are recognizing parents want both options.

Last Thursday, St. Louis Park Schools decided to offer a one-year pilot of free all-day, every-day kindergarten at its elementary school with the most low-income students. Districts such as St. Paul and Richfield, helped in part by referendums, have offered free all-day, every-day kindergarten for years.

Richfield leaders say all-day kindergarten helps retention, which is key as schools across Minnesota battle to keep and attract students and state aid that goes with them. Parent demand also prompted Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools to offer full-day kindergarten for a fee, stopping families from leaving for districts with that option.

In Rockford, leaders decided this year to pay $400 more per student to offer free all-day, every-day kindergarten, saving $77,000 in busing costs and adding art, music and gym classes for kindergartners.

"The benefits outweigh the costs significantly," said Superintendent Paul Durand. "Good educators figure out how to get through the bureaucracy and do what people want."

Too costly for some districts

Whether districts or the state can afford the full-day programs is still up for debate.

"Achieving a balanced budget and trying to do the best job we can for education is pretty high on my priority list," Olson said. "If we are going to make additional expenditures or focus our attention on early education, where is the best place for getting the best return?"

Pre-kindergarten may be more beneficial to fund, she added, leaving all-day kindergarten funding to districts.

In Burnsville, a six-year University of Minnesota study showed that all-day, every-day kindergarten eliminated the achievement gap. After the free one-year program in 2003, students were so far ahead academically that teachers received extra training in following years to meet their needs.

But the district hasn't been able to afford it for all kids. It charges $3,000 a year for the full-day program now, which 42 percent of kindergartners took part in this year. Districts such as West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan, Edina, Hopkins and Minnetonka have similar fees.

State data shows that it would cost at least $128 million to fund all-day, every-day kindergarten for all students.

"The more we fund it for the poor kids, the more the other parents will not want to pay for theirs," Greiling said.

Four years ago, a bill to put $106 million more toward kindergarten failed to get enough support. If legislators nix this year's plan, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the push will continue.

"This is actually a core function that we should be providing and fully supporting as a state," she said. "This push by the governor sets a whole new priority around it. We need to invest earlier in our children."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141