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Dayton pushes Republicans unwilling to expand pre-K program

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Gov. Mark Dayton is pushing back against Republican lawmakers who are unwilling to fund his proposed $175 million expansion of voluntary pre-Kindergarten.

"To have that available through the schools is really essential, or otherwise those children don't get an opportunity to advance with others," said Dayton, who sees an expansion as a way to build on $25 million approved by lawmakers last session. 

There are currently 3,300 4-year-olds participating in 74 school districts. Dayton's proposal would increase participation to more than 17,000 students in 260 school districts.

Dayton wants a balanced approach that also includes early learning scholarships, quality child care and school-readiness programs, he said at a Tuesday news conference.

But pre-K is needed in areas that have few options, he said.

The governor's plan would fund voluntary pre-K in every district that has already applied for the limited funds. Educators from some of those districts helped him make the case.

Cindy Stolp, the early childhood education director in Pine City, said her district tried unsuccessfully to get some of the money. 

Pine City is ready to begin when and if the funding arrives, she said. There's a waiting list.

"It breaks my heart when a 4-year-old arrives at our school with their backpack loaded, ready to learn, and we have to turn them away," Stolp said. "I wish we could serve every child right now, but we just can't." 

House Republicans have long resisted Dayton's pre-K push. Their recently-released education finance bill eliminates the base pre-K funding that they approved last session.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who chairs the House education committee, said she prefers a more targeted approach that directs funding to the children who need it most. She favors early learning scholarships and school-readiness programs, which, unlike pre-K, do not require licensed teachers.

"The governor is now trying to take us in a slightly different direction by having really a new grade at school," Loon said. "That serves children whether they come from [economically] disadvantaged backgrounds or not." 

She adjusted her bill this week to help the 74 districts currently receiving voluntary pre-K funding. Loon said they'll instead receive an equal amount of school-readiness funding.

"It's an olive branch to the governor to say that those school districts are not going to lose out on an opportunity to provide quality early to those children in their community," she said. "They're just going to have more flexibility with the dollars that I'm assigning to it." 

But Dayton, who described the original House proposal as "appalling" and accused Republicans of using 4-year-old as bargaining chips, brushed off Loon's overture.

"That's not an olive branch. That's a poke in the eye," he said.   The House and Senate are expected to vote on education funding bills next week. Negotiations will then heat up with the governor on a potential compromise.

Senate Republicans take a different approach from the House in their education bill. They didn't include the governor's proposed increase and kept pre-K funding at its current level.