Free school breakfast for kindergartners through sixth grade, free student eye exams, free preschool for all 4-year-olds, more school counselors and more money to fix up aging schools could all come to pass under an ambitious package of education bills proposed by key DFL senators Wednesday.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Chuck Wiger of Maplewood unveiled the package of 11 bills flanked by a half-dozen other DFL senators. Wiger said the exact cost of the bills won't be determined until late February, when the state's economic forecast is released, but he said he hopes to get at least $500 million in funding.
Education has emerged as a top priority for DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, and on Wednesday the governor said in a statement that "I commend the Senate Majority Caucus for its excellent legislative priorities."
Dayton stopped short of endorsing the proposals, but noted, "We have many shared goals, and I look forward to working with the Legislature to provide the resources and strategies our teachers and schools need."
The bills, some of which have received bipartisan support, are about "creating the world's best workforce," Wiger said.
Many of the Senate bills are similar to proposals Dayton included in his budget recommendations late last month, including free preschool, the expansion of child care tax credits and free breakfast.
Sen. Sean Nienow, the lead Republican on the education committee, said Wednesday that the proposals appear to be good policies, but he added that the costs could quickly become staggering. He said the proposals were too broad and should be narrowed to lower-income or high-risk students.
"We need to target the resources," said Nienow, of Cambridge. "When you throw that money at everyone, you end up spending a whole lot of money."
House Republicans also have said that Dayton's education proposals, particularly his free preschool plan, would likely need to be tweaked to ensure only lower-income Minnesotans qualify for the state assistance.
Though the Senate proposals mirror those by Dayton, some go further in expanding state support for schools.
The free breakfast bill, sponsored by Sen. Alice Johnson, DFL-Blaine, would apply to all kids up to the sixth grade, regardless of family income. Dayton's proposal would limit free breakfast to those in third grade or below. Even that would take in 83,000 students at a cost of $28 million for two years.
Johnson, vice chair of the education committee, said providing free breakfast for all elementary school students would reduce the stigma low-income students experience for the benefit. She also is sponsoring the bill that would provide free, comprehensive eye exams to students.
Senate Files 75 and 76, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, would revamp how repairs to school facilities are made. It would allow smaller districts to tap into state funding, rather than turn to voters, to make improvements to their buildings.
Dahle also wants to streamline three funding programs to create one for long-term maintenance projects for schools statewide. The overall aim is to reduce inequities between rural districts and larger ones that have led to a deterioration of buildings.
Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, is carrying legislation that would offer matching state money to districts interested in hiring more support staff, including counselors, nurses and social workers.
Wiger's bills would help expand rural broadband access and provide more state money for technology upgrades identified by local districts.
Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, introduced a bill that would expand opportunities for Minnesota students to earn dual college credit for courses while still in high school.