Lost amid the rancorous legislative session earlier this year, which ended with the 11th-hour collapse of a major bonding and transportation bill, was a small victory for advocates of universal preschool.
This fall, the Minnesota Department of Education will begin administering $25 million to Minnesota schools hoping to establish a voluntary preschool program. The funding will serve an estimated 3,700 students.
"New investments in voluntary pre-K will help more children attend prekindergarten free of charge. But we are just getting started," Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said in a recent statement. "Minnesota has much, much more work to do, and next legislative session we need to make more progress, so every child and every family has the opportunity to participate in high-quality prekindergarten."
The $25 million and the number of students that will be served by it is a far cry from what Gov. Mark Dayton first proposed in early 2015. Then, he asked for nearly $350 million in state funding to send nearly 50,000 4-year-olds to preschool.
The proposal essentially added an entirely new grade to the K-12 public school system. It would have required licensed teachers and eventually would have cost $914 million once fully phased in.
The price tag turned off legislators of both parties who instead expanded existing prekindergarten programs and early-learning scholarships, adding roughly $90 million to both equally.
When legislators last year approved an education spending bill without Dayton's top priority of universal preschool, he vetoed it. He eventually relented on his preschool plan, signing an education budget bill with $525 million in new funding and vowing to fight for the proposal in the 2016 legislative session.
While Dayton managed to secure money for the scaled-down voluntary preschool plan, critics lamented that it will not require licensed teachers.
Funding for the preschool program is not the only new schools funding that the Legislature approved.
In all, legislators provided nearly $80 million for other programs — most of the funding came from allowing some school districts to repay outstanding state loans early, generating more than $50 million.
The programs funded include:
• $12 million in grants for schools to hire additional support staff, such as counselors, psychologists and social workers.
• $2 million for an expanded loan forgiveness program to attract new, diverse teachers to the state's largely white teaching corps.
• $2.8 million for student-teaching stipends aimed at low-income students training to become teachers in high-need subject areas or regions throughout the state.
• Nearly $1 million for adult high school education. The funding will also pay for GED tests for students seeking the equivalency of a high school diploma.
"These investments are critical to our work in supporting every student to succeed," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.