Gov. Mark Dayton is headed for a clash with state House Republicans as they seek to stop the spread of prekindergarten classes in Minnesota public schools, a signature accomplishment of the DFL governor’s tenure.
At a news conference Tuesday, Dayton vigorously defended his plan to spend $175 million to expand prekindergarten offerings. The program is up and running in 74 school districts, and Dayton wants to use part of the state’s projected $1.65 billion surplus to maintain the existing classrooms while expanding it to more of the nearly 200 additional districts and charter schools that have applied for funding.
Republicans who control the House released a public schools spending proposal late last week that would stop the program’s expansion. Those districts already offering prekindergarten would still get $25 million from the state, but would be freed to spend their share of prekindergarten money on other early education programs at their schools.
Dayton accused Republicans of cutting prekindergarten money from the budget in order to gain leverage over him in advance of wider spending and policy debates in the coming final weeks of the legislative session.
House Republicans want to deliver major tax cuts and reduce spending in many areas across state government.
“Once again, 4-year-olds get relegated to the status of bargaining chips in the big political show that goes on here,” Dayton said. “It’s just very, very unfortunate.”
The money already spent on prekindergarten helped school districts add a new grade level and hire teachers specifically charged with preparing students for kindergarten. Dayton and advocates say bringing the program to every school would ensure that all students, including those from low-income families, get a good start and perform better throughout their school careers.
But critics, including House Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Rep. Jenifer Loon say they believe state early education money will go further if targeted more precisely at low-income students — and if families have a choice between public or private preschool programs.
“We don’t have enough resources to add a new grade,” said Loon, R-Eden Prairie. “That’s very expensive, it’s going to compete with K-12 (budgets) and a school-based program may not be the best solution for all 4-year-olds.”
Under the House GOP budget, the 74 districts currently receiving prekindergarten funds would get a share of about $40 million in early education funding.
But instead of offering prekindergarten for all students, those districts could opt for “school readiness” programs typically targeted at low-income students; or start charging higher-income families who want to enroll their children in prekindergarten.
The House would also increase statewide spending on other districts’ early education programs by about $9 million and set aside an additional $25 million for preschool scholarships. The GOP plan calls for that extra early education funding to drop in the second half of the two-year budget cycle, and it would not be automatically renewed in the future.
The governor’s plan continues existing spending on scholarships, but does not dedicate new money for them.
In the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrower majority, GOP leaders have taken a more measured approach.
Their plan leaves Dayton’s current prekindergarten spending intact in current form, but does not expand the program to more school districts.
Loon said she’s optimistic she and GOP colleagues will be able to win Dayton’s support on an early education plan. The House’s education budget bill is still making its way through committees before a vote soon by the full House.
“I don’t relish a political fight with the governor on this, especially when we both share the same ultimate goal,” she said.
But Dayton said Republicans’ strategy of replacing prekindergarten with existing programs isn’t the kind of compromise that he’s looking for.
He said he would not sign a statewide education funding bill, one of the year’s most important and costliest pieces of legislation, if it adopts the House Republican approach on prekindergarten.
“That’s not an olive branch, that’s a poke in the eye,” Dayton said.