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Minnesota hands out $25 million to launch pre-kindergarten programs

Shekina Washington, mother of an Osseo, Minn., student, says on Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, that pre-kindergarten classes are good for youngsters. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)1 / 2
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius listens to a reporter's question Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, about pre-kindergarten funding. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Minnesota taxpayers will fund free pre-kindergarten for 3,302 4-year-olds this fall, a far cry from what Gov. Mark Dayton would like.

Dayton and state education officials on Monday announced what districts will get money to start the programs.

The $25 million legislators approved earlier this year means slightly more than a fifth of the state's school districts will provide free pre-kindergarten. Money is headed to 74 districts and charter schools.

Parents are free to send their children to district programs, other options or not at all.

Dayton had asked lawmakers for $173 million to enroll more than 47,000 4-year-olds, and within a few years, the Dayton administration expected 57,000 to attend pre-kindergarten classes.

The Democratic governor said that the fact 183 districts and charter schools applied for pre-kindergarten funding proves there is a demand for the program. State officials turned down 109 applications because there was not enough money, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said.

"Thousands of kids will be denied the educational opportunities they need to achieve their greatest potentials," Dayton said.

Legislation required that the Education Department give funding priority to districts with the highest poverty and those without existing pre-kindergarten programs. Cassellius said the law also requires money to be distributed statewide.

"We need all kids to do well," Democrat Dayton said, not just poor ones.

The money is available for schools this fall. Dayton said schools that do not have enough space will need to ask voters for money to expand.

Dayton said he plans to make increasing pre-kindergarten funding a priority during next year's legislative session. He already won an effort to provide money for all-day kindergarten in schools that want it.

Shekina Washington, a parent of a kindergartener-to-be in the Osseo area, said her daughter attended pre-school and will be better prepared this fall than students who did not. Students in pre-kindergarten programs "will gain academic and social" skills and will better understand school routines, she said.

The pre-kindergarten program establishes a five-day-a-week schedule for the young students, Washington added.

Osseo teacher Etta Rassier said that with pre-kindergarten, licensed teachers can "target the school-readiness skills that we know are so important."

Cassellius said the new program should help cut the learning gap between black and white students as poor minority communities were more likely to get the new money.

The commissioner said she heard from superintendents who could not put an application together in time for the tight deadline to get funding for this fall. Others did not apply because their poverty rates are low.

Schools that were awarded funding on Monday will not need to reapply, Cassellius said, unless the law changes

Money is headed school districts across the state, with districts in the north half of the state and the Twin Cities area most likely to receive it.

Districts serving Columbia Heights, Minneapolis, Osseo and St. Cloud will get more than $1 million each. At 226, Osseo has the most students who would be served.

List of schools approved, denied

List of school districts that will get funding, as well as districts that were turned down: " target="_blank">mn.gov/governor/newsroom/?id=1055-251633

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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