Gov. Mark Dayton signed an education-funding bill that provides money for all-day kindergarten beginning in the Fall of 2014, which DFL leaders called the "capstone" of the Legislative session.
"This is why we raised taxes progressively," Dayton said as he signed the bill, which increases funding for pre-school scholarships, all-day kindergarten and classroom education by a combined $485 million.
DFL sponsors of the bill, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, and Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, offered glowing testimonials.
"This is a great day for our kids and the state of Minnesota," said Marquart, himself a teacher and wrestling coach. He said the bill will "hit the reset switch" on education in Minnesota.
"This is the best education bill to be signed in Minnesota history," said Wiger. "It's not only a home run -- it's a grand slam."
The bill uses the biggest chunk of the tax increase for several education efforts:
-- $134 million to allow districts to provide all-day Kindergarten beginning in Fall 2014, with no charge to parents. It would be optional for districts, but most are expected to participate. Currently, free-all-day kindergarten is available to slightly more than half of Minnesota students.
-- $234 million in basic classroom funding through the school funding formula, beginning in the coming school year.
-- $40 million in scholarships for parents, based on need, to send their children to high-quality pre-schools. Scholarships are worth up to $5,000, affecting an estimated 8,000 students. The funds will be available immediately.
-- $40 million in special education.
The bill raises the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17, meaning students must be a year older to legally drop out. And it does away with high-stakes high school testing known as the GRAD tests, replacing them with tests that are designed to more quickly identify problems and better prepare students for college.
Business groups and GOP legislators attacked the end of the GRAD tests as a "dumbing down" of Minnesota education. Dayton said tests had become counterproductive and needed to change.
"We're in transition from the old form of testing, which was onerous, which was absurd," Dayton said. "I'm for testing -- I 'm for accountability, but not past the point and into absurdity, and that's where we've gone.... We're going to develop testing ... that is modeled after, if not exactly like, the ACT, which is used nationwide, which is accepted by colleges nationwide."
The K-12 education bills were generally opposed by Republican legislators, passing with largely DFL votes in the Senate (41-26) and House (78-56.)
Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, Assistant Minority leader and GOP leader on education finance, sharply criticized the bill, which he voted against. He said the notion that the Legislature can set 2027 as the year when the system will have no achievement gap is unrealistic.
"It's full of pixie dust," he said. "We're just funding the same programs that have given us ... the nation's worst achievement gap." He said of the bill, "It's full of money and empty of reform."
He added that the early-childhood funding includes a rating system that gives an advantage to Head Start, which may be the only highly-rated option for parents outside the metro area. And assuming that all-day kindergarten will solve problems is an "empty promise," he said.
A DFL legislator, Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, praised the bill in general but said it does not spend enough to promote early-childhood education. He criticized the caps on scholarship amounts and the fact that there is not enough funding to serve all those who need it.
He said $5,000 "will enable a child to attend high-quality child care from about January to May," but then families will "scramble to find the money to continue."
Gov. Dayton signs education bill with sponsors Rep. Marquart (left of governor) and Sen. Wiger (right) watching.