The number of Minnesota 4-year-olds with access to free prekindergarten classes at public schools will rise this fall by several thousand, and Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday he wants to keep expanding that number before the end of his term.

In all, 74 Minnesota school districts will add or expand the voluntary prekindergarten classes, providing slots for about 3,300 additional students. It's made possible by $25 million in new state funding, proposed by Dayton and approved by the Legislature this year.

"Minnesota schools and families want voluntary prekindergarten, and our children need it to succeed," Dayton said.

The biggest recipient of funds is the Osseo School District, the state's fifth largest. It will get $1.5 million to serve 229 more students; the Minneapolis School District is next at $1.4 million, serving 162 students.

"Those are students that we would otherwise not be able to serve, who were not getting prekindergarten before," Osseo Superintendent Kate Maguire said. "So we'll be able to expand by that many students in our highest needs schools."

The new funding means just over one-fifth of Minnesota school districts will be providing free voluntary prekindergarten classes. Dayton, who has made spending increases on early learning one of his top priorities, noted that additional funding he sought would have spread the classes even further. Nearly 60 percent of the districts that applied for the $25 million in funds were turned down.

Advocates of early learning cite studies showing that early intervention by education professionals positions students much better for school, but students from poor families are less likely to have access to such programs.

The administration cited a 2015 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranking Minnesota 50th in the nation for access to full-day early learning programs. Advocates tout wider access to prekindergarten as one route for Minnesota to shrink its well-documented achievement gap between white and nonwhite students.

"When school-based prekindergarten is actually integrated with the teachers that are teaching kindergarten, first, second and third grade, children sustain the results for quite a long time," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Schools applying for the funds were judged on a formula that considers the concentration of poverty in the district and proximity to other child care options. Some larger districts will get more money per pupil for prekindergarten, given additional costs tied to greater concentrations of poverty.

The 74 districts were chosen from 183 that applied. Cassellius said numerous other superintendents decided not to apply this time but are likely to in the future. Districts had only about a month to apply after Dayton signed the bill into law.

Districts awarded the prekindergarten funding can count on the extra money each year going forward, unless the Legislature were to cut the spending. But the ability of more districts to tap into the funds depends on lawmakers and the governor agreeing to provide yet more funding.

The Department of Education estimates that it would cost an additional $300 million a year to pay for prekindergarten classes at every Minnesota public school. Dayton said that's something he'd like to accomplish before leaving office at the end of 2018, but he acknowledged the high price tag would make it difficult.

"It depends on the fiscal condition of the state, but the cost of not doing this is far greater than the cost of doing it," Dayton said.

Patrick Condon • 651-925-5049