Gov. Dayton doubles down on early education
ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton's latest education budget proposal makes clear that he believes the best way to close Minnesota's achievement gap is to focus on young students and struggling learners.
ST. PAUL - Gov. Mark Dayton’s latest education budget proposal makes clear that he believes the best way to close Minnesota’s achievement gap is to focus on young students and struggling learners.
Dayton wants $373 million in new education spending in the next two-year budget, with almost $200 million of it going to programs such as early childhood education, tutors for young readers and more help for students learning English.
The $17.2 billion budget proposal builds on the last biennium, when DFLers poured nearly $500 million of new spending into preschool-through-12th-grade programs. At the center of that budget was another early-education initiative, $134 million for districts to offer all-day kindergarten.
When he introduced his latest budget, Dayton said his focus was on reducing economic and academic disparities.
“The evidence is, we have more and more children in serious difficulties at earlier and earlier ages,” Dayton said. “We have to step back and say, ‘Why is this society, despite its economic prosperity, putting so many families into economic hardship?’ ”
Spending Minnesota’s more than $1 billion budget surplus on programs to help those in need is “money well spent,” he said.
Not everyone agrees new spending is the cure for poverty or the academic achievement gap. Hours after Dayton made his budget pitch Tuesday, Republican leaders criticized the plans as too costly and lacking new ideas.
“If money was truly the solution, Minneapolis schools would have the best-educated students in the state, but unfortunately they have one of, or the lowest, graduation rates in the state,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “Money hasn’t solved the problem.”
Instead of new spending, Republicans want reforms to state education that they say will close the achievement gap and give school leaders more flexibility in how they spend state aid and hire and fire teachers.
State Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, chair of the House Education Innovation Policy Committee, said she was disappointed to see no reform proposals in Dayton’s budget.
“I was looking for something along the lines of innovation to close the achievement gap with the money we have,” Erickson said.
House Republicans have made it a priority to reform teacher-seniority rules and make it easier for qualified people to become teachers. They say those changes will give school officials the tools they need to put the best teachers in the classroom.
They also want to take a closer look at how many tests students take because of federal and state rules.
Erickson said she knows that changing the teacher-seniority rules, commonly called “Last In, First Out,” faces an uphill battle. Most DFLers oppose the idea, saying Minnesota law already allows districts to negotiate more nuanced systems to deal with reducing staff.
Erickson does think there’s common ground on improving teacher licensing and student testing. She hopes Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legislators will support Republicans’ plans to give districts more flexibility in how they spend state funding so local leaders can focus on their communities’ specific problems.
“I have faith in my local school boards that they know where the need is,” Erickson said. “I like local control, and I want school boards to feel like we empower them.”
Many education advocates applauded Dayton’s proposal to focus much of the state’s budget surplus on early education and programs for struggling students. School leaders also raised concern about the amount of new funding for general operations - proposed to increase 1 percent each year.
Lobbyists for school boards and administrators put top priority on aligning the general funding formula with inflation. School leaders have long complained that increases of 1 or 2 percent a year don’t keep pace with their districts’ rising costs.
For example, Dayton’s suggestion of $174 million over two years in new general education funding would result in the Anoka-Hennepin schools, the state’s largest district, having to cut $20 million in spending, a school spokeswoman said.
Plans to put Minnesota on the road to universal preschool also were met with questions and concerns. Schools across the state have been expanding preschool programs, but most put their focus on getting kids who are poor or learning English ready for kindergarten.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, the state’s fourth-largest, has been slowly adding preschool spots at five schools. It is paid for with compensatory state aid that districts receive to help struggling students.
Julie Olson, the district’s director of elementary education, said the students in those programs wouldn’t attend preschool otherwise, either because of cost or lack of transportation. About 75 percent of district students attend preschool in nondistrict programs.
Olson favors a need-based approach to reach the remaining 25 percent and close the achievement gap.
“We are not trying to take over the pre-K market,” she said.
Senate Education Committee Chair Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said a broad expansion of preschool is important to DFLers because the return on investment is so large. Wiger noted that Dayton’s $109 million plan scaled back DFL senators’ plan for universal preschool, which had a $400 million annual price tag.
“It’s an ambitious goal, and we should set our goals high,” Wiger said. “We are very serious about closing the achievement gap and having all students ready for kindergarten.”
Wiger defended DFLers decisions to target much of the new funding at specific programs rather than put more into general per-pupil spending. He said the increases Dayton wants will help close the achievement gap and get students ready for the workforce.
However, Wiger said there are things Dayton’s budget overlooked that will be part of DFL senators’ budget plan, due later this year.
That includes more funding for school counselors, money for teacher evaluations and changing how Minnesota pays for school building upkeep and student technology.
Wiger and Erickson plan joint House and Senate education committee hearings to discuss proposals important to both parties.
“It’s important to have an open mind and to have discussions on all proposals,” he said.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.