Minnesota’s 2013 Legislature took important strides forward in education — especially for the state’s youngest students. Last week, legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to put $485 million in new funding into programs from preschool through 12th grade in the next two years.
A meaningful portion of that new spending will support early learning efforts and special education. That’s worth celebrating. Numerous studies have shown that high-quality preschool makes an enormous difference in student achievement. When children ages 3 to 6 establish a strong foundation for learning, they are more likely to do well throughout their school careers.
Called the “capstone’’ of the education bill by DFL supporters, $134 million will provide all-day kindergarten for all kids — with no charge to parents. Currently, free all-day kindergarten is available to slightly more than half of 57,000 eligible children in the state.
Student and district participation in the daylong programs will be voluntary, but most are expected to participate. All schools currently offer half-day kindergarten for free, and some devote general education funds to all-day programs for needy students. But with the new state support, those districts can channel those funds back to general education. The new state funding also will bring savings totaling $26 million over two years to 10,000 families that now pay several thousand dollars per year for expanded-day programs.
Another $40 million of the education package will be devoted to need-based scholarships for state-approved preschools. Scholarships of up to $5,000 will go to providers to educate about 8,000 lower-income 3- and 4-year-olds.
The state support will greatly expand a successful pilot program supported by several business groups. In a research-driven effort, these groups created the Parent Aware rating system that the state will use to direct families to the most effective programs. Though results from the pilot are promising, the state should carefully monitor results — especially in outstate areas, where there may be fewer options.
Some advocates say that reaching all of the state’s neediest preschoolers would require at least $150 million. Nevertheless, the $40 million commitment is an important first step — especially given Minnesota’s history of lagging other states in commitment to early learning.
In addition, a combination of federal and other grants and state child-care funds should make it possible to increase the per student amounts for needy kids. In future sessions, lawmakers should build upon this initial investment.
Together, the kindergarten and preschool spending holds great promise to improve academic achievement for state students.
A total of $234 million — $78 per student in the first year and $80 per student in year two — will increase the basic formula-driven amount that districts receive. An additional $40 million will help schools with soaring special-education costs that have been repeatedly underfunded by the federal government.
Lawmakers also sent the right message to teenagers by raising the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17. Students will have to be a year older before being able to legally drop out of school. Even students who might not be headed to college need as much academic time on task as possible to prepare for postsecondary training and to become successful adults. Dropping out almost certainly limits a young person to lower-paying jobs for a lifetime.
While the funding progress was notable, it was disappointing that lawmakers did away with the GRAD test that state students had to pass to receive a high school diploma. We argued against the change, noting that 96.7 percent of the students who took the writing test and 91.1 percent who took the reading test passed in 2011.
Those results say that the exam was not excessively difficult. The state Department of Education proposes replacing GRAD exams with ACT-type tests that are supposed to help students identify problem areas and prepare them for postsecondary learning.
On balance, the 2013 Legislature did well by Minnesota students. However, in future sessions lawmakers should take a fresh look at graduation requirements. In the increasingly competitive global economy, schools and students must be held accountable for results.