Gov. Dayton, House Republicans far apart on Pre-K spending

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton is accusing House Republicans of using the state’s pre-kindergarten students as a bargaining chip in the budget battle playing out at the Capitol.

“It’s just a shame that the House Republican Caucus zeroed out funding for pre-K,” said Dayton at a Tuesday news conference.  “So, all four-year-olds in Minnesota have to take a back seat to the politics that play out.”

The House Education Finance Committee has released its omnibus K-12 school funding bill that eliminates the state’s voluntary pre-K program. The program shepherded by Gov. Dayton pays for pre-kindergarten classes at 74 school districts across the state. Brenda Cassellius, the governor’s Department of Education commissioner says the program funding is awarded to school districts with the highest poverty and highest concentrations of needs in the schools. Cassellius says 269 school districts applied for the funding.

Dayton in his supplemental 2018-19 budget has asked for $175 million to expand the voluntary pre-k program (VPK) to all of the school districts that have applied.

“That would be 17,100 additional four-year-olds that would have the advantage of pre-k,” said Dayton. 

House Education Finance Chair Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) has offered the governor what she calls an olive branch. She has amended her original finance bill to now include an extra $41 million in School Readiness funds so the 74 school districts already offering VPK can keep the program.
“Those school districts that were in the VPK program are being made whole through School Readiness dollars—dollar for dollar,” said Loon.  “But we’ve increased school readiness for all other school districts, a $9 million increase over previous bill and over base, and we invest $25 million in new money in early learning scholarships.  Which the governor did not invest a nickel in his budget.” 

Early education scholarships have been a key component of the House Republican budgets for the past two years.  Republicans and some policy experts believe the money better targets low income and at-risk families to help them get choose where to send their kids to preschool.

Commissioner Cassellius believes many of the school readiness programs don’t align with the state’s learning goals.  “It offers programs for parents and children,” said Cassellius about School Readiness.  “It can be one day or two days, they could be half day or a couple of hours.  They don’t require a licensed teacher or any number of hours for specific alignment to our standards.”  

But, it’s the flexibility to parents that Rep. Loon says is needed for many families and schools.

“Voluntary Pre-K was really quite inflexible,” said Loon. “It was funded on a per pupil basis like we do K-12 funding, which makes it very complicated.  There are a lot of different categories that go into how it’s funded.  And again, it removes a lot of flexibility for districts to craft the programs how they would like to.”

Still, Gov. Dayton believes Rep. Loon’s attempt at a compromise is no compromise at all.

“Obviously, House Republicans zeroed out any money for pre-K.  That’s not an olive branch, that’s a poke in the eye,” said Dayton.