DFL candidate for governor Mark Dayton unveiled a K-12 education plan that would fund all-day kindergarten, cut classroom sizes and end the four-day school weeks some districts have adopted to save money.
His ambitious plans came even as he and his opponents scramble for available dollars to meet the current needs of schools statewide.
Speaking at Dayton's Bluff elementary school in St. Paul, Dayton said that "a good education is essential to providing Minnesotans with the state that we want for our future, for our children."
He did not have cost estimates for the changes, but acknowledged that their implementation would rely on available resources.
But those resources are scarce. Dayton's latest budget plan -- even without the education reforms -- still has a $1 billion shortfall.
He has committed to meeting the projected rise in K-12 budgets over the next two years, and hopes to repay more than $1 billion in shifted payments to schools during the same time.
"We've got two big pieces of financial obligation to the school districts before moving beyond that," Dayton said. "But I would like to move beyond that."
Independence Party candidate Tom Horner also says he would fund the projected budget increases, while Republican Tom Emmer's budget would hold K-12 to its current funding. That would be more than 14 percent below what state officials estimate is needed to maintain current services. Horner and Emmer would both delay paying back the shifted school payments.
Dayton said his list of goals "does involve committing additional resources, which is the reason that I'm also committed to raising revenues progressively."
On class size, which has crept up in recent years, Dayton said he would reduce it to "what the educators would say are effective," and that all school districts should have money for all-day kindergarten. He also noted that poor performing teachers and principals should be replaced, and did not rule out a continuation of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Q-Comp program, which offers schools incentives to experiment with merit pay.
Several educators said Dayton's goals are admirable, but are nearly impossible without significant funding.
"All of these things would make quite a difference, but they'd all have a pretty sizable price tag," said Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation and a former Republican Senate majority leader. "It's pretty pricey. Right now, they're having trouble getting enough money just to meet basic needs."
Brad Lundell, executive director of Schools for Equity in Education, a consortium of 58 school districts mostly outside the metro area, also questioned how Dayton would find money to fund his plans.
He noted that many of his small districts wouldn't have the classrooms or teachers to accommodate all-day kindergarten.
"It's a very ambitious package," Lundell said. "It's hard to argue against, but you just don't snap your fingers and have things happen."
P. Fred Storti, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary Principals' Association, said predictable funding is the most important factor. He described the current school funding as a "roller coaster of budget reductions."
Beyond budget projections, Horner and Emmer have also outlined goals for reforming K-12 education.
In recent campaign stops, they have emphasized re-evaluating teacher tenure and rewarding teachers based on performance rather than on seniority and education guidelines favored by unions. They also support creating more avenues for people without a teaching degree to become educators.
All three candidates will meet Thursday at 5 p.m. for an hourlong education debate that will be webcast live.
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491 Eric Roper • 612-673-1732