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State funding could disappear -- along with one Winona Area Public Schools preschool program

April 15, 2018 GMT

A preschool program at Winona’s Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School, intended to get 4-year-olds from low-income families ready for kindergarten, could be among the casualties of expiring state funding.

The $50 million sum approved at the end of the last legislative session allowed 59 school districts and charter schools across the state to expand free preschool offerings. State officials estimate the funds will pay for 4,000 children per year to attend classes.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants lawmakers to make the funding permanent — it expires at the end of the 2018-19 school year — using part of Minnesota’s $329 million budget surplus. But some lawmakers argue that any extension should wait until next year, when the Legislature develops a new two-year state budget.

“If the funding were to be gone, we wouldn’t be able to do the program in this sense,” said Margaret Schild, director of Community Education for Winona Area Public Schools. Schild oversees W-K’s Voluntary Pre-K program, which accepted its first families last October.

“One of our goals is to provide preschool access to more low-income students,” she said. “This is such a great opportunity for a child to have these experiences prior to entering kindergarten: riding in on a bus, being with other kids, being in small groups and large groups, working on social and emotional skills. It’s really a great introduction for what kindergarten will be like.”

A collaboration between the school district and Winona State University’s Children’s Center, the program offers three hours of preschool in the morning, five days a week, throughout the school year.

It filled up with 15 students, most of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch and live within a mile of W-K, shortly after the district announced the program.

It’ll continue for at least one more year, Schild said, and the district and city do have an array of other preschool options — though they tend to be expensive and hard to get into.

“We strongly support access to preschool for kids and families who wouldn’t otherwise have access, either because of cost or transportation,” she said.

Republican lawmakers, including Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, have said they would like more time to evaluate these preschool programs, and that they want to examine the results of a legislative audit of early childhood programs that’ll be released this month.

Postponing the funding decision until next budget cycle would also put it in the hands of Minnesota’s next governor. Dayton is not running for re-election in 2018.

And while the current governor has championed preschool programs in school districts that are free to all students, Loon and many other Republican legislators have pushed instead for funding targeted at low-income families. Those early education “scholarships” can pay for either a private or public program.

“The topic is something I think we agree on, in terms of the importance of it and making sure we’re providing access to families who can’t afford it and whose children need it,” Loon said. “It’s just trying to figure out where (to) go from here and the timing of that.”

“This is such a great opportunity for a child to have these experiences prior to entering kindergarten. ... It’s really a great introduction for what kindergarten will be like.” Margaret Schild, director of Community Education for WAPS