- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Education makes up the biggest chunk of Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan for how to spend a projected $1 billion surplus in the state budget.

The governor on Tuesday proposed spending $373 million over two years to offer free preschool to 31,000 4-year-olds and increase school funding, among other programs. The pitch aims to reduce the gap between Minnesota’s white students and students of color, which some say is among the worst in the country.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said setting every child up for success will help Minnesota in the future.

“The best way to do that is through an excellent education,” she said.

Top Republican lawmakers disputed the Dayton administration’s assertion that expanding early childhood education is the key to tackling the achievement gap. Instead, Republicans are pressing to change the way teachers are chosen for layoffs, by making evaluations the main determinant rather than seniority. They say that will ensure the best teachers are in Minnesota classrooms.

“Money hasn’t solved the problem,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt.

Dayton revealed the broad strokes of much of his education plan last week. The Democrat wants to eliminate Head Start waiting lists, offer more early education scholarships and expand the state free breakfast program through third grade. He’s also proposed a 1 percent increase in the basic per-pupil funding formula for districts in each of the next two years - money those districts could spend as they see fit.

Other items include extra spending on students learning English and programs aimed at increasing academic achievement for American Indians.

The governor’s preschool plan is less ambitious and less expensive than one proposed by Senate Democrats, which would start this year and cover the entire state. Dayton wants to spend $109 million to offer voluntary preschool starting with the 2016 school year, with the state covering only half of the cost to districts. The Senate bill was estimated to cost $416 million in its first two years and would leave the state on the hook for the full bill.

___

Associated Press writer Kyle Potter contributed to this report.

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