Push on in Minnesota Legislature for education funding

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 1, 2013 - 11:18 PM

From preschool to college, changes would be far-reaching.

If higher taxes are the medicine the DFL wants the state to swallow, then more money for education — from finger-painting preschoolers to debt-burdened undergrads — could be the sweetener that makes it go down easier.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL leaders of the House and Senate, their party fully in power for the first time in more than two decades, are pushing a sweeping combination of preschool scholarships, free all-day kindergarten, and a boost for higher education to put the brakes on the tuition hikes of the past decade.

“I think it’s an exciting time for education in Minnesota,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he wants to “make 2013 the education session.”

“For many years we’ve been in a ‘cut’ mode,” said Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, who chairs the Senate’s education finance division. “Now we’re reinvesting in our future.”

With the state budget still in deficit, new spending will require new money — tax hikes on top-earning Minnesotans, most likely, as well as other new taxes. Republicans have argued against tax hikes as a threat to the state’s fragile economy, and have accused the DFL of funding the status quo in education rather than looking for new answers.

“It’s unfair to keep pouring money into programs that are failing,” said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, an assistant minority leader of the Senate who points to studies questioning whether preschool spending produces the promised results.

But with the stars now aligned, it is a safe bet that the gavel will fall in May on a budget that includes increases in early education, all-day kindergarten and higher education, although the approaches still differ.

Even after he took his sales tax expansion off the table, Dayton still is proposing a $344 million increase for early ed through 12th grade, with another $240 million hike for colleges and universities.

The DFL-led House, however, wants $700 million for the same types of expenditures plus an extra tax surcharge it would use to pay off the state’s debt to schools. DFLers in the Senate are seeking an extra $462 million for preschool and all-day kindergarten for every child and another $262 million bump for higher education.

Both sides see some cause for alarm in the yawning achievement gap between white and minority students and in the state’s high school graduation rate. Once a benchmark of the state’s academic success, Minnesota’s 77 percent graduation rate now stands well below top-tier states such as Iowa (88) and Wisconsin (87 percent), according to figures supplied by the state. Minnesota’s 49 percent graduation rate for African-American students is near the bottom among all 50 states.

Day-care scholarships

Cassellius said research on brain development from birth to age 5 supports expanding access to quality preschool programs. Under Dayton’s proposal, scholarships would be offered to help about 10,000 lower-income students attend preschool. “We want to make sure everyone starts at the same starting line,” she said. The scholarships, worth $4,000, could be used at preschool programs chosen by the parents, Cassellius said.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said the House goal is to “completely fund all-day, everyday kindergarten” along with early childhood education. “The two go hand-in-hand,” he said.

About 54 percent of the state’s students are able to attend all-day kindergarten without a fee, Cassellius said. Other families pay hefty fees to have their children attend all-day kindergarten. Wiger said he is concerned by the number of parents who face what he considers a financial penalty for the program. “So many young parents are paying $2,500 to $3,500 per year,” he said. “It causes a great deal of financial stress.”

Dayton’s proposal would make free all-day kindergarten available to about 85 percent of families, and some legislative plans call for complete statewide coverage.

Not everyone is convinced of the benefits. Chamberlain said research from long-standing preschool programs in Georgia and Oklahoma shows no significant long-term benefit in graduation rates or test scores. He said he favors freezing current funding for preschool and kindergarten programs and focusing on charter school alternatives that he said have worked for at-risk students. He fears that the DFL will weaken skills tests and believes some programs tend to separate parents from children unnecessarily.

“There is harm to taking the parents out of the equation,” Chamberlain said. No program calls for mandatory participation in all-day kindergarten.

Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, an assistant minority leader of the House, said additional money can be funneled to needed education programs without tax hikes by looking for cuts elsewhere. He said schools should be able to decide whether to use the new money for all-day kindergarten or some other program.

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