Dayton bemoans size of pre-K expansion

Gov. Mark Dayton, along with his education commissioner and three metro area superintendents, said he remains disappointed that the GOP legislature didn’t provide money for a larger expansion of voluntary pre-kindergarten. Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Minnesota education officials announced Friday that 35 additional school districts will receive pre-kindergarten funding this year.

The total is now 109 districts that will serve 6,100 four-year-olds when the new school years begins.

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders agreed last session to a $50 million expansion of voluntary pre-K, far short of the $175 million that Dayton wanted.

During a news conference to highlight the numbers, Dayton said 183 districts that applied were left out due to insufficient funding. He said he remains disappointed that the GOP legislature didn’t come through with more money.

“In a time when we had a $1.65 billion budget surplus, many legislators didn’t want to fund an expansion of pre-k at all, questioned its value to anybody, and then finally reluctantly agreed to this partial funding increase,” Dayton said.

Dayton was joined by his education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, and three superintendents from metro area school districts that are receiving some of the new funding.

Robbinsdale Superintendent Carlton Jenkins said he’s pleased his district is getting $1.9 million. But he said more investment is needed throughout the state.

“This is a big move but it’s not big enough,” Jenkins said. “I encourage legislators to reach deep down in your consciousness to work with your governor to make sure that all children have access.”

Republican lawmakers have resisted Dayton’s pre-k push. They prefer investments in early learning scholarships, which they insist give families greater flexibility.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the chair of the House education finance committee, said scholarships are a “proven program.”

“We know this approach works better than a one-size fits all approach that is embedded in the Governor’s voluntary pre-K plan because it’s what research shows time and time again,” Loon said. “We will continue to advocate for proven programs that prioritize children most at risk and who benefit most from state-funded early childhood learning opportunities.”