by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
With the Minnesota health insurance exchange passing the Senate and now on its way to the governor’s desk to become law, the Senate can focus on its second top priority, all-day kindergarten.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told the ECM Editorial Board on March 15 that the Senate will now “dig in” on all-day kindergarten. Bakk is looking at ways to fully fund the education initiative.
Bakk acknowledged that Gov. Mark Dayton included it in his revised budget but says it only applies to kids on free and reduced lunch programs because of cost restraints. The governor’s program costs about $50 million for all-day kindergarten.
The cost to include every child is about $170 million, Bakk said.
Bakk explained his rationale for pushing for full funding of all-day kindergarten: “When I came here in 1995, there wasn’t even an early childhood committee and there has been so much research done over the last couple of decades about the amount of brain development done in early years of life. And the state doesn’t pay for all-day kindergarten when we know it’s a good investment?”
Showing his determination, Bakk said, “We’re gonna do it.” He said some money will need to be moved around in the governor’s education-funding bill. Bakk said the governor has $127 million slated for special education. Those monies are all general fund monies, Bakk explained.
Currently, about half of the school districts in the state are offering all-day kindergarten. Fridley, Princeton and Forest Lake school districts are three that just implemented all-day on their own.
Some districts are using levy money and some are using general fund money from the state to pay for all-day programs. A large number of districts in the Twin Cities area are charging tuition for all-day kindergarten.
Bakk said he was told that some districts are charging parents as much as $4,100 a year for the extra half day. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, is paying $2,600 in Hastings, Bakk said.
More districts will benefit from fully-funded all-day kindergarten, Bakk emphasized. “It is a more equitable education policy,” he said.
Bakk said some districts might not offer all-day kindergarten “right away” because they may have space constraints and may have to sell bonds to build a few classrooms. Bakk said he believes all districts will eventually implement all-day kindergarten because they know that these kids will be tested in third grade.
“It’s really hard to be against early childhood,” Bakk said.
The DFL-controlled House has yet to release its budget proposal, but Speaker of the House Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, also told the editorial board they are supportive, but funding would ultimately determine the level of state support. Speaker Thissen said there is enough money to support all-day kindergarten.
Dayton’s budget proposal increases E-12 education funding by an average of $72 per student in fiscal year 2014 and an average $339 increase per student in fiscal year 2015.
The proposed $40 million in funding to support all-day kindergarten programs would increase the current per pupil funding support of .5 for half-day programs and .6 for all-day programs to a new weighted per pupil funding total of .7.
Bakk’s proposal for all-day kindergarten received a lukewarm reception from Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Senate Minority Leader Hann said he saw the proposal as another move to shift funding responsibilities from the local level to the state. The senator said he has seen no evidence that the all-day program is any better than a half-day program and also said kindergarten currently is not a requirement.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, both told the editorial board they see value in early education but said funding levels would involve a difficult balancing act to determine program funding.
“If we can work together on early childhood, it is something we should do,” Loon said. “Personally, I think investing in early education is better than all-day,” she added.
(Cliff Buchan, ECM Editorial Board chairman, contributed to this report.)
Howard Lestrud can be reached at [email protected]