Thousands more young children will head to preschool this fall after Minnesota leaders dedicated an additional $50 million to programs that ensure kids enter kindergarten ready to learn.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said the increased funding will allow 6,160 children to attend pre-K programs for free this fall and bring the number of early learners in such programs to 22,500 this year. But the governor and school officials, who gathered Friday to announce the expansion of various early learning programs, said the new funding doesn't go far enough to meet the demand.
"There should be more investment in our early childhood programs," Robbinsdale Area Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said, as those efforts help reduce the drop-out rate. "This is a big move, but it's not big enough."
Dayton has pushed for universal pre-K and spent $257 million on early learning efforts over the past six years. This year he proposed spending an additional $175 million on such programs.
Legislators agreed to $50 million in new one-time funding over the next two years.
The governor's proposal was "a challenge and a stretch," said Rep. Jenifer Loon, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee.
There are children who would be ready for kindergarten without the state's intervention, said Loon, R-Eden Prairie, and she would prefer to focus on those who need assistance, like kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
"If we have a system of universal pre-K that is not adequately targeted … it takes resources away from the K-12 system," she said.
The $50 million allocated by the Legislature includes more money for scholarships in addition to Dayton's voluntary pre-K program, Loon said. The scholarships allow parents more flexibility in where their child gets early learning services.
Across the state, 223 school districts and charter schools applied for the new pre-K funding this summer and 59 received it, according to the governor's office. Another 74 districts and charters will continue to get funding the state first allocated to them in 2016.
The programs help young children develop social-emotional, early literacy and language skills, said Superintendent Christine Osorio, who leads the district that includes North St. Paul, Maplewood and Oakdale. They also familiarize kids with a school environment so they are not wasting time acclimating in kindergarten, she said.
Osorio's district received enough of the new one-time funding to pay for an additional 144 children to participate in pre-K programming. The state received applications for an additional 9,094 pre-K students that it did not have funding to cover.
"There is great disappointment to me that at a time when we had a $1.65 billion budget surplus, many legislators didn't want to fund expansion of pre-K at all … and then finally reluctantly agreed to this partial funding increase," Dayton said.
If all 4-year-olds attend universal pre-K programs, it could have a disastrous side effect on the private market for day care and early childhood education, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said.
"It destroys the marketplace and drives up the cost for the kids up to age four dramatically," said Nelson, the E-12 Finance Committee chairwoman. "It's a much more complex issue than what it looks like."
While Dayton does not have enough legislative support to meet his universal pre-K goal, Minneapolis and St. Paul are studying a local option.
Gretchen Musicant, Minneapolis' health commissioner, spoke to City Council members this week on the possibility of a universal program across the Twin Cities and funding challenges.
Minneapolis is waiting to get more details from St. Paul and from a Legislative Auditor's report that could identify early learning program gaps or duplicative funding efforts, Musicant said. She expects city leaders will dive deeper into the idea in 2018.