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Schools, governor push to make preschool funding permanent

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Teacher Sharon Smith Lossiah leads preschool students in circle time.
Teacher Sharon Smith Lossiah leads preschool students in circle time at Gideon Pond Elementary school on September 13, 2017.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News 2017

School officials say they may have to cut preschool classes if lawmakers do not extend state funds awarded last year.

The $50 million sum approved at the end of last legislative session allowed 59 school districts and charter schools around the state to expand free preschool offerings. State officials estimated the funds will pay for 4,000 children per year to attend the classes.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants lawmakers to make the funds permanent this year using part of Minnesota's $329 million budget surplus. Dayton has also proposed increasing the funds by five percent per year.

"It shouldn't be so hard to provide high-quality education to children who need it, will benefit from it and do better for the rest of their lives because of it," Dayton said at a recent press conference.

In the Robbinsdale Area School District, families have already filled most of next year's spaces in the new program, early childhood programs director Monica Potter said.

Monica Potter stands for a portrait.
Robbinsdale Area School District early childhood programs director Monica Potter stands for a portrait inside of the New Hope Learning Center i on Tuesday, April 10, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Robbinsdale received $1,887,982 this year to fund about 360 preschoolers.

Parent Laura Dumont said she made a "hasty" change of plans when she found out about the new five-day-a-week, free preschool classes Robbinsdale added with the money. Dumont enrolled her twin sons in one of the classes and said it was the right choice.

"They have learned their numbers, their letters, they're writing words already," Dumont said.

If funds are not extended, Potter said Robbinsdale would likely have to cut back its program. Other school district leaders receiving the money said they would also probably have to scale back.

Still, despite Dayton's urgent calls, those cuts to school preschool programs would not occur until after next school year, when the funds expire.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the funding decision should wait until next year, when lawmakers craft a new two-year state budget.

"This happens with a lot of programs, they're funded for a budget period, and then the Legislature has the opportunity to review and decide if they want to continue in that same way in the next budget or not," Loon said.

Loon added that she also wants to examine the results of a legislative audit of early childhood programs that's due out this month.

Postponing the funding decision until next budget cycle would put it in the hands of Minnesota's next governor. Dayton is not running for re-election in 2018.

And while Dayton has championed preschool programs in school districts that are free to all students, Loon and many other Republican legislators have pushed instead for funding targeted at low-income families. Those early education "scholarships" can pay for either a private or public program.

"The topic is something I think we agree on, in terms of the importance of it and making sure we're providing access to families who can't afford it and whose children need it," Loon said. "It's just trying to figure out where do we go from here and the timing of that."