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State education commissioner talks pre-k funding in Austin

April 14, 2017 GMT

AUSTIN — With state lawmakers fighting over funding for early childhood education, one official headed straight for the classroom.

Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius stopped by the Austin Community Learning Center on Wednesday to tour the facilities and interact with staff and students on how pre-K programs affect them.

She spent around two hours joining classrooms and engaging with preschoolers. Cassellius watched the children learn the alphabet and what sounds each letter makes. She helped some students build towers with blocks, and laughed when one child knocked down the structure.

More than that though, the students were learning life skills in a structured environment.

“I’ve often told people, I’m a Head Start baby myself,” Cassellius said, “and so I know personally the great impacts that it has for children being ready for kindergarten. As well as for families to be able to have a place, a safe place, for children to be able to grow, learn, and thrive.”

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Funding for pre-K expansion is a subject of intense debate at the Capitol. Gov. Mark Dayton lobbied for more than $700 million in spending for education, and his recommendation included a 2 percent increase to the General Education Basic Formula, and a $175 million increase in pre-K funding.

However, the Minnesota House answered with a $273 million education funding bill in late March. That bill would eliminate the current base funding for voluntary pre-K programs, and move the money to school readiness adjustment credits and early learning scholarships.

The House bill gives a 1.25 percent annual increase to the General Education Basic Formula, a per-pupil formula that covers general operating costs. This includes increases to school readiness programs and teacher loan forgiveness.

In order to fund the increased spending, the bill proposes to eliminate voluntary Pre-K options. Of which, Dayton expressed his concerns.

“Investing $175 million in voluntary pre-K this year will allow more than 17,000 Minnesota four-year-olds and their families to have access to better opportunities to succeed in school, and in our economy,” Dayton said. “I am appalled that anyone would use the best interests of Minnesota 4-year-olds as a political bargaining chip. I urge House Republicans to invest in voluntary pre-K opportunities for our youngest learners this session.”

Voluntary Pre-K programs now receive $25 million in funding. The funds went to 74 school districts serving 3,300 Pre-K students. Dayton’s proposal looks to expand the program to all school districts that applied for the funding, and possibly extending pre-K options to more than 13,000 students.

“The House cuts will affect them negatively, and so we’re hoping that they’ll go back to the drawing board and look at the governor’s proposal for pre-K and know how important it is for children and families,” Cassellius said. “We hope to have good support at the Capitol, and I know the governor is going to be pushing for our littlest Minnesotans to get a great starts so it’s really important.”