Walz urges schools to be creative with summer programs

The governor kneels down to talk to a few students outside.
Gov. Tim Walz talks with elementary school students in Hopkins, Minn., earlier this month. The DFL governor on Tuesday released $75 million in federal funding for schools across the state to provide summer learning opportunities.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

Minnesota school districts should learn within days how much money they’ll get for summer programming — now that $75 million has been released by the Walz administration.

The allocation comes from a federal rescue plan and was freed up as part of a deal between Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders. 

In addition to traditional courses, the money can be used for neighborhood programs, tutoring, field trips and other strategies to get students caught up. At Otter Lake Elementary School in White Bear Lake Tuesday, Walz encouraged districts to be creative.

"We're really encouraging districts to see education different, to reimagine what can be, to start thinking about closing that achievement gap, to use the pandemic as an inflection point for what can be new," Walz said.

Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said all districts around the state will get some aid through a formula. There are also grant-specific programs. Lawmakers are still discussing funding levels for schools heading into the next academic year.

Mueller said school districts have wide latitude in how to use the money to help children make up for ground lost during the pandemic. 

“Not only are our students really engaging in what they need to do academically, but also thinking about those social, emotional learning pieces that really give them an opportunity to be thoughtful not only about themselves but about their peers,” Mueller said. 

Specifically, the governor will provide nearly $35 million for public schools to provide academic and mental health support; $20 million for preschool for 4- and 5-year-olds; $6 million for school-linked mental health grants; $3.25 million for expanded access to tutoring; $10 million for increased adult basic education programs; and more than $1 million for college readiness programs.

And Walz is getting bipartisan support for the effort, since the money to pay for it is coming from the federal COVID-19 response. 

“We said it all year: The governor’s argument that the state desperately needed to fund summer school was an unnecessary threat. There was always plenty of federal money available to meet — and exceed — all our summer school needs,” said Senate Education Committee Chair Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. “Senate Republicans approved his use of the federal funds, and the governor followed through. I’m glad schools will get the support they need to help students and families recover from disastrous school closures.”

Chamberlain added that Walz should lift the requirement for students to wear masks. 

DFL lawmakers from the House were more positive. 

“We know every child’s education needs are unique,” said House Education Policy Chair Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights. “A robust summer learning package will help meet those existing needs, address learning loss and social and emotional learning, and deliver the resources our students need to be successful.”

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