Education gets big boost in Dayton's budget proposal

Teacher with student
Kindergarten teacher Kara Bickett reads with a student at Centennial Elementary in Richfield, Minn. in November 2012. All levels of education, from preschool to higher ed, would receive increases in funding under Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal released Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Education officials in Minnesota are finding much to be happy about in Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal.

All levels of education, from preschool to higher ed, would receive increases in funding under the plan.

Dayton says his budget proposal would help Minnesota students get a good start by first boosting the state's pre-K programs.

"In this budget I am proposing an additional $92 million in support for early learning, including early learning scholarships, and other help for families to afford high quality childcare," Dayton said.

That includes $44 million in scholarships so 10,000 low- to middle-income parents can enroll their kids in quality child care centers and preschools.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said spending more on preschool is the best way to make sure students are ready to start kindergarten.

"That requires an investment," Cassellius said. "We wanted to insure that all of our families and all of our children had that investment so they could get that great start."

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The governor's proposal also includes $40 million to help pay for all-day every day kindergarten at Minnesota schools. Right now the state only pays for half-day kindergarten. State education officials hope to increase the number of students in all day kindergarten from just over half now to 85 percent within a few years.

Overall the governor's plan increases per-pupil funding to schools by $118 million. Tom Dooher, the president of the state teachers union, Education Minnesota, said that's refreshing compared to the flat budget seen in the past few years.

"Where in the past we've either had to fight off cuts or just fight to get to flat," Dooher said. "When we're starting in January already ahead, that is a really good sign."

As notable as what's in the budget proposal is one item that's not. The governor would not immediately pay back about a $1 billion borrowed from schools to balance the state's budget in recent years.

Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton takes notes while Commissioners Jim Schowalter and Myron Frans, not pictured, present additional details about the governor's budget proposal to the media Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013 at the Department of Revenue in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Dayton said school districts will get their money by fiscal year 2017. The failure to pay back the money right away doesn't alarm school officials, who've said they'd rather see new funding now than have that old debt paid right away.

In addition to the per pupil funding increase, the governor's budget would also increase special education funding to school districts by $125 million. There's a gap between what the federal government mandates for special education and what it pays for, anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per student; schools make up for that out of their general budgets.

Jeff Drake, superintendent of the Battle Lake school district, said better funding special education would free up school districts' general budgets for other necessities.

"For districts it could involve anything from being able to do different things; staffing to purchase of curriculum or technology," Drake said. "Any of those items that would normally have been paid for out of the general fund."

And finally, Dayton says his budget proposal would increase state aid to higher education. Dayton proposes adding $80 million to the State Grant, a 25 percent increase. For students who qualify for the financial aid, that could mean an average increase of $300, with increases of more than $1,000 for some.

Dayton's budget also offers up an $80 million funding increase for the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Larry Pogemiller, the director of the state Office of Higher Education, said Dayton sees higher education as a big priority.

"He is making, I believe, the largest commitment to post-secondary education that I've seen since I've been here — proportionally, to the rest of the budget," Pogemiller said.

For MnSCU the budget proposal means funding to buy training equipment, and expand an internship program. For the U of M it would fund research and provides money to freeze tuition for two years. The U's money comes with strings attached however. Pogemiller said first the U needs to ease lawmakers' concerns over how much the school spends on administration.

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