ST. PAUL, Minn. – Majority Democrats in the Minnesota Senate aren't lining up with Gov. Mark Dayton's plan to send every 4-year-old to preschool, a sign the second-term governor's proposal needs a major push to succeed this year.
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The Senate education budget proposal for schools released Wednesday includes $70 million in extra school readiness funding. That would let districts offer more preschool programming, but it wouldn't necessarily be free to families. The Republican House has also balked at Dayton's $343 million plan, which would essentially create a new voluntary grade for 4-year-old students at no cost to parents.
Dayton criticized the House and Senate plans as "unacceptably low" in the amount of the state's projected $1.9 billion surplus devoted to schools. He said he won't just split the difference to achieve compromise because that would be far below what he considers adequate.
"We're so far apart that there's nothing to begin to talk about," Dayton said, adding of the legislative plans, "Neither one is acceptable to me."
House Republicans are opting to push for roughly $10 million more in school readiness money and a $30 million increase in early education scholarships. Many advocates say those scholarships, targeted at the neediest children, will better address Minnesota's racial and economic achievement gaps.
House Education Finance Committee Chairwoman Rep. Jenifer Loon told reporters Tuesday that her plan gives schools more options.
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"If they want to create an all-day, every day program for the 4-year-olds with the money they receive, they'd have that flexibility. But the governor would actually propose making schools have it for everybody," the Eden Prairie Republican said.
Dayton has said the projected surplus means scholarships and his proposal don't have to compete.
Minnesota had one of the lowest rates of 4-year-old enrollment in publicly funded preschool programs in the 2012-2013 school year, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education. About 15 percent of 4-year-olds participated in such programs, well below the national average of 41 percent and even further behind neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin.
The debate over education funding has expanded beyond the Capitol. The teachers union Education Minnesota is rolling out a four-week, roughly $200,000 ad campaign calling on Minnesota to invest the surplus in education, from early learning to college.
The Senate's $17 billion education budget proposal includes a 1 percent increase in general school funding for each of the next two years. That falls between House Republicans' proposed increase and the 1.5 percent bump per year Dayton has moved toward.
Associated Press reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.