Dayton not satisfied with Senate education bill

The Minnesota Senate passed an education budget bill Wednesday that increases funding for early childhood learning, but not in the form that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton wants.

The vote was 39-28. Under the DFL Senate bill, the existing School Readiness program for four-year-olds would receive an additional $65 million over two years.

Dayton has a $348 million proposal to establish universal preschool statewide.

Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL- Maplewood and chair of the Senate education committee, defended the approach in his bill.

“This is a proven, effective, high-quality program for readiness for kindergarten for four-year-olds,” Wiger said. “And actually, the program that’s been in place is for three, four, up to five. But there has not been a substantial investment in this for many years.”

Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said the early learning money should be allocated to districts with no string attached.

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“Trust the school board; trust the school district; trust the teachers; trust the parents,” Nienow said. “Let them determine what their need is. They don’t need another mandated program.”

The Senate education bill also provides an additional $5 million for early learning scholarships.

The bill increases basic funding to schools by 1 percent each of the next two years, with an overall spending increase for education of $365 million.

But with a $1.9 billion budget surplus, Gov. Dayton said he wants more spending for schools. Earlier in the day, he warned lawmakers that he’s not backing down on his universal preschool proposal.

“I think there are senators on the DFL side who feel very, very strongly about the need to increase the funding for that bill overall and the way it’s allocated,” Dayton said. “So, it’s going to be an ongoing conversation, and we’ll have that over the next three weeks. But hopefully we can work it out.”

House Republicans also left out the governor’s proposal in their education bill, which passed last week. Overall, the House bill increases school spending by $157 million. It adds $30 million to early learning scholarships and $10 million to school-readiness funding. The basic funding formula increase is less than 1 percent.

Dayton said House Republicans were making a “terrible trade” by using money for proposed tax cuts that could be going to education.

The three sides will have to negotiate a budget agreement by the deadline for the Legislature to adjourn on May 18.