Legislature poised for another preschool debate

Minnesota lawmakers are expected to consider a host of spending proposals when the session starts next month, including several aimed at early childhood education, if the projected $1.2 billion budget surplus holds up.

Early childhood education advocates highlighted their funding needs Thursday in St. Paul, during a conference called the Children and Youth Issues Briefing.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who pushed unsuccessfully last year for universal preschool funding, won’t release his supplemental spending proposals until next month. But Lt. Gov. Tina Smith made it clear to the group that preschool is still part of the discussion.

“I’ve talked to parents and superintendents and kindergarten teachers, and I have actually never heard anybody say that they don’t think pre-k is a good idea, an idea that we need to move forward on for every family that wants it,” Smith said. “The truth is most school districts are offering preschool right now, with inadequate funding and with long waiting lists, because that’s what families want.”

Smith also emphasized the need to enact paid parental leave benefits for state employees and to increase funding for a government-subsidized child care program.

House Republicans continue to resist Dayton’s push for universal preschool.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, told the group that there are still too many unanswered questions about the proposal and its potential impact on schools. Peppin said she favors programs such as the early learning scholarships that lawmakers funded last session, which allow families to make education choices.

“It’s a mixed delivery system that works best, where parents have a lot of choices, where parents can use those dollars how they want to use them, how it works best for their family,” Peppin said. “We will continue to push for spending that way.”

Peppin did not mention the GOP proposal to provide tax breaks for private school tuition. House Republicans pushed for that change during recent negotiations for a special session that never materialized.

The top Democrat in the Minnesota Senate tried to lower expectations for additional state spending in a non-budget session, even with a surplus.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told the crowd of educators that he doesn’t want to tie the hands of future lawmakers with additional ongoing spending commitments. But Bakk said part of the surplus could be used for some targeted, one-time allocations.

“Early childhood, if there’s some money, is certainly at the top of the Senate’s list,” Bakk said.

Bakk stressed that a bigger Senate priority this session is passage of a paid family leave measure.

State officials are scheduled to announce a revised budget surplus number next Friday.