Calling it a necessary step to maintain a strong school system and lessen disparities across the state, Gov. Mark Dayton made his case on Wednesday for spending an additional $609 million on Minnesota's public schools over the next two years.

The proposed new spending in Dayton's budget plan would divert a significant chunk of money from the state's projected $1.4 billion surplus. Speaking to reporters, the DFL governor said he wants to expand prekindergarten and special education programs and increase the amount of money spent on each public-school student in the state.

"This money is still just making up for what has been lost before," Dayton said. "It's not putting Minnesota even in the top 10 states for funding for education. It's restoring some of what was lost in the previous decade."

Dayton's $46 billion, two-year budget proposal — now being debated by legislative committees — continues a recent trend of increased spending on education. Since Dayton took office six years ago, the budget for public schools, currently about $17 billion for the two-year budget cycle, has risen by $1.5 billion.

Focus areas for the next biennium include $75 million to allow more schools to launch prekindergarten programs and $40 million for special education programs. An additional $62 million would help school districts repay school bond levies over the next four years. Schools across the state would also get 2 percent more funding per student in each of the next two years, adding up to $371 million.

Scott Monson, superintendent of Marshall Public Schools in southwest Minnesota, heads a district that would receive an extra $1.4 million if Dayton's proposal is enacted. He said schools in the district are short on space for a growing population of students but haven't been able to pass a referendum to pay for improvements. Monson supports the governor's plan because it could fill in that gap — and because previous funding jumps have allowed the district to build its career and technical education programs and reach students who might otherwise have a hard time keeping up.

"It allowed us to add staff to work with struggling learners and work on addressing the achievement gap," he said.

Dayton said he believes spending more on schools and on health-related programs, like home visits for teen parents, is key to improving graduation rates and helping groups that lag behind in finishing school and finding jobs. But convincing Republicans, who hold a majority in both chambers of the Legislature, is likely to be a challenge.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairwoman of the Senate Education Finance Committee, said she shares many of Dayton's goals but doesn't yet know if they line up with what the state can and should do to help students and families.

She echoed earlier comments from Republicans who have urged a more targeted approach to prekindergarten, focusing on families who need it most and in settings that work best for them.

Nelson said her committee will focus first on figuring out which programs are working, and then work out a separate spending plan. "First we have to look at results, and then how we get there," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790