By Don Davis
The need to spend more money on early-childhood education is simple for Nancy Jost: “It helps children get ready for life.”
With those seven words, the Fergus Falls woman boiled down why most Minnesota legislators want to increase spending for programs such as early-childhood scholarships and all-day kindergarten.
Jost, who works for the multicounty West Central Initiative regional community foundation, said provisions in a $15.6 billion, two-year Senate education funding bill help “low-income families access high-quality child care.”
Jost testified Thursday as a Senate committee got its first look at what Senate Democrats propose for spending on programs from early childhood through high school. Its spending falls between Gov. Mark Dayton’s $15.5 billion and House Democrats’ $15.7 billion plans.
The three proposals are very similar.
The Senate plan would spend $130 million to allow, but not require, all school districts to offer all-day kindergarten. That matches the House plan, but is more than Dayton suggests.
Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, said his all-day kindergarten proposal is “an investment in our future workforce.” He said it would help close the education gap between students of color and white students.
The bill would give $44 million to scholarships that low-income families with 4- and 5-year-olds could use to send children to what senators call high-quality programs such as Head Start.
Democrats say the bill would send $722 more to school districts for every student in the next two years.
One of the problems Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, saw in the bill is it does too little to equalize payments to urban and rural districts. “That’s always a concern.”
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said the added state aid would help reduce the difference in the higher amounts many Twin Cities school districts receive and the lower-level rural districts get.
Senate Education Finance Chairman Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the bill treats all of Minnesota fairly. “Educational opportunities should not be based on ZIP code.”
Stumpf said Minnesota property owners should see tax breaks because Senate Democrats plan to increase per-pupil payments $200, intending that school districts use that to lower property taxes. However, Stumpf said, the proposal does not require districts to lower taxes.
The Senate plan would drop the current requirement for each student to pass a test before graduating. In its place would be testing beginning in middle school and providing help for students to get ready for college.
The bill also would raise the age people must attend school to 17 from the current 16. No change is proposed to when a child must begin school, currently 7.
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said he does not think any GOP senator can support the measure.
Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said that while the DFL bill would spend more on education than in the past, the percentage of the state budget going to education would fall from the current 42 percent to 39 percent under the Democratic plan.