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Minnesota Legislature: Big boost sought for early childhood education spending

By Tim Pugmire

MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL – Despite a projected $1.1 billion Minnesota budget deficit, early childhood education advocates are pushing for a major investment in programs that help prepare disadvantaged children for school.

It’s the latest in a growing list of education spending proposals that the new DFL-controlled Legislature appears ready to consider this session – a list that already adds up to several hundred million dollars.

A statewide coalition of nonprofit groups and businesses known as MinneMinds unveiled a request for $185 million over the next two years to fund pre-school scholarships aimed at children in poverty.

During a State Capitol event earlier this week to launch the campaign, Nancy Jost, early childhood coordinator of the West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls, said action is needed soon.

“Now is the time to address the most critical issue preventing Minnesota kids from being adequately prepared for school,” Jost said. “It’s time to make access to quality early care and education programs a priority.”

Several education funding proposals are expected to get attention this session, but DFL leaders in the House and Senate have so far set distinctly different strategies for helping schools.

The new DFL majority in the Minnesota House declared its commitment to public education earlier this month with the first bill of the session. House File 1 delivers $1 billion in delayed payments to schools, money that the Legislature held back in previous budget deals.

“It’s important that we start off by saying we’re going to keep our commitment,” said freshman state Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, the bill’s author. “And paying back half of it or making that commitment to look at that is our firm down payment on that promise.”

State Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, said he supports the payback but he also wants to make it harder for lawmakers to pass another school payment delay in the future. Woodard introduced legislation requiring a 60-percent majority on such votes.

“We already require a three-fifths majority whenever we borrow money on our bonds,” Woodard said. “We should require the same threshold when we borrow from our schools.”

Senate Democrats included all-day kindergarten among their first bills of the session, but no money for the delayed school payments. The Senate measure would provide about $170 million annually to school districts to offer all-day kindergarten as a voluntary program.

The option should be available statewide, said state Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee.

“It should not be based on the wealth of a district as to whether you have kindergarten or not,” Wiger said. “This is the 21st century, and that’s why it’s being proposed. Let’s get that together.”

But state Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, said he thinks Democrats will have a big problem delivering on all their campaign promises this year. With the state facing a budget deficit, Nienow said the only way the DFL majority can follow through on its growing education wish list is to raise taxes – a lot.

“Now they can do anything they want, and if they do, they won’t be back in their majorities again because Minnesota is not looking for a six- or a seven- or an $8 billion tax increase,” Nienow said. “I think you’re going to see these bills. They’re going to go in. But you’re just not going to have the money to fund it all. It just isn’t going to be there.”

DFL leaders in the House and Senate share at least one big goal for education: they want to make local property taxes a smaller piece of the school funding puzzle. School districts rely too much on local tax levies to pay for operating expenses, said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, chair of the House Education Finance Committee.

“What that has created is great disparities among the property-rich districts and the property-poor districts,” Marquart said. “It’s getting to the point where the quality of your education is depending on your zip code. That has to be reversed.”

The education finance and tax committees in both chambers are expected to start digging into the local levy issue soon.

Lawmakers will find out next week if Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, includes any of the same education finance initiatives in his two-year budget proposal.