- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Despite competing spending priorities and political pushback, Gov. Mark Dayton isn’t relenting in his push to expand Minnesota’s early education programs.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith signaled to The Associated Press in an interview last week that some form of state-funded preschool program is still on the table this year after the administration’s push faltered last session.

But it’s just one piece in a bevy of school-minded proposals that’ll be fiercely competing for limited funds - the projected budget surplus has dipped by $300 million - when lawmakers return to St. Paul early next month. Here’s a look at what may be in the mix:

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UNIVERSAL PRESCHOOL

Dayton and Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers’ union, began pushing for a voluntary, universal preschool program last year, but that failed to gain traction and was abandoned in favor of increased spending on early education scholarships and school readiness programs.

Dayton said Friday that universal preschool is still among his priorities, but conceded Friday that fewer surplus dollars will make it more difficult.

“If we’re not going to expand pre-K now, I don’t know when we will,” he said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Republicans have argued such a program primarily serves to boost membership in the state teachers’ union and doesn’t tackle the achievement gap like the targeted education spending they advocated for last session. Daudt said Friday that he isn’t eager to spend this session and has been adamant that the surplus should be returned to Minnesota taxpayers.

But Sen. Chuck Wiger, a Maplewood Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, recently said he’s “very supportive” of a universal preschool program, though he noted a half-day program could be cheaper and easier to get through the Legislature.

“I hope we can do it, but we’re going to have to have the money,” he said.

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PIECE BY PIECE

A reduced surplus could make smaller, individual education proposals tough to pass in both chambers, with top lawmakers urging caution in committing the state to more ongoing funding that could overburden future legislatures.

But if there’s money left on the table, education advocates want to spend it.

Rep. Erin Murphy, the DFL’s deputy minority leader, said she thinks there’s “enough here” to continue investing in early education programs. She said there are still kids on waiting lists for Head Start programs, affordable child care and preschool programs.

Last year, the Legislature ended up increasing education spending by $525 million, with $95 million in new spending going toward early education. Rep. Jenifer Loon, Wiger’s education counterpart in the House, noted that, saying lawmakers already have “forged a path” that is working well.

Prior to Friday’s surplus forecast, Loon said extra funding could go to increased funding for child care tax credits or scholarships, the latter opposed by the teachers’ union.

The governor’s office also has shown interest in a piecemeal approach, such as, Smith said, putting more money toward the state’s underfunded Child Care Assistance Program.

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WHAT’S LEFT?

While early education has dominated much of the spending conversation, other proposals will likely be put forth.

Wiger and the teachers’ union say they want more emphasis on recruiting teachers of color and funding training and development for existing teachers. They’d also like to see more transparency in state standardized testing.

Many also have pushed for more support for “full-service community schools,” where schools serve as one-stop shops for academic, social and health needs - such as after-school programs, medical and dental services and resource centers - for both parents and students. So far, there are only two schools - in Brooklyn Center and Duluth - that are operating as full-service community schools.

“This is voluntary but it’s a cost-effective strategy to bringing services more efficiently to families,” Wiger said. “Ultimately it’s better for the taxpayers.”


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