Washington County schools back 'little learner' money — flexibility, too

Dayton’s budget would help district families pay for costly all-day kindergarten.

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Kindergarten students at Royal Oaks Elementary School in Woodbury work on iPads in class.

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Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to make free all-day kindergarten available to more students statewide could bring relief to budget-minded parents in at least three Washington County school districts.

South Washington County, Mahtomedi and the White Bear Lake Area schools currently require families that wish to put children in all-day versus half-day programs to pay thousands of dollars in fees.

Altogether, the governor’s budget calls for more than $84 million in new spending for the state’s littlest learners. More than $40 million would go to all-day kindergarten, while another $44 million would be designated for state early-learning scholarships that help low-income children attend high-rated child-care and preschool programs.

The proposals now must make their way through the legislative process and could be altered as interest groups compete for money.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers’ union, said recently that he hoped the state could ensure that 100 percent of students could attend all-day kindergarten, as opposed to the 85 percent projected to be served under the governor’s proposal.

But, he said, after years of budget strife, Dayton’s budget plan offers a “good starting point” to determine how, “not if,” Minnesota will put new money into education.

South Washington County, for its part, already has made a case for preschool funding support.

In testimony before a state Senate committee, officials noted that a district group that was formed to study early-learning options began with a conversation about all-day kindergarten but shifted its focus instead to early childhood development programs. The group found that success in an all day, every day program depended on all students being ready for kindergarten, but that less than half of district students came prepared, according to a written report provided by the district.

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who represents the area, has proposed that districts be allowed the flexibility to use all-day kindergarten funding for preschool programming, too. Her bill was heard in committee and laid over for possible inclusion in the Senate omnibus education finance bill.

This school year, South Washington County charged a $2,628 fee for all-day kindergarten.

Mahtomedi and the White Bear Lake Area Schools are asking families to pay $3,200 and $2,700, respectively, in 2013-14. But Bor Xiong, a spokeswoman for the White Bear Lake Area Schools, said last week that the school board also is considering a proposal to offer free all day, every day kindergarten.

The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District has offered a free all-day program for seven years, and despite making $23 million in budget cuts during that time, never reconsidered the move. Today, all-day kindergarten costs the district $1.2 million annually, spokeswoman Jennifer McNeil said.

Test data provided to state senators showed that 82.5 percent of third-graders who went to all-day kindergarten in the district were proficient in math in 2012, compared with 69 percent of students who did not attend kindergarten in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district.

The Stillwater Area Public Schools, which also has free all-day kindergarten, could see a budget boost from the governor’s proposal because the district currently subsidizes its all-day program, spokeswoman Carissa Keister said. Encouraging, too, she said, was Dayton’s proposal to raise basic per-pupil aid by $52, or $118 million statewide.

The district currently faces a $4 million to $6 million deficit in 2013-14.

This year, the Forest Lake Area Schools charged families up to $2,800 for its “all day, every day” program. But late last year, the district decided to spend about $500,000 to make all-day kindergarten free for everyone in 2013-14.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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