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Dayton proposes funding for universal preschool

If Gov. Mark Dayton gets his way, all-day, every day preschool would be available to all Minnesota school districts.

He’s proposing to invest a large chunk of the state’s projected $1.9 billion surplus — $343 million — in universal preschool for 4-year-olds, and a total of $695 million for pre-K-12 education. Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius was in Duluth on Thursday to talk about Dayton’s education spending proposals and to hold a “listening session” with Duluthians.

“Research is so clear that kids have to have an early start in order to be ready for kindergarten and in order to not get behind,” Cassellius told the News Tribune. “Why do we have achievement gaps? Because we’ve been shortchanging kids on the front end.”

The percentage of the state’s 4-year-olds enrolled in publicly funded preschool is 15 percent, she said.

 The state has one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.

Under Dayton’s proposal more than 47,000 — or 80 percent of 4-year-olds — would be served the first year of universal pre-K, with numbers expected to grow in following years.

The proposal also includes an expansion of the state’s early learning scholarship and school breakfast programs, money to help eliminate the state’s Head Start waitlist and a 3 percent increase to the per-pupil funding formula over two years.

Both the House and Senate have proposed much lower amounts for pre-K-12 funding.

Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth said the benefits of preschool are many, including ensuring students enter kindergarten on “equal footing.”

In Duluth, concerns would include finding the room for those who want to participate and adequate funding to carry out the programming, Gronseth said. The district offers preschool through federal Head Start classrooms, which has income guidelines —  and community education.

Cassellius said the proposal allows for flexibility, and school districts would be able to partner with child care centers, churches and other community entities.

If approved by lawmakers, the state would give districts a year to plan, similar to what it did when universal kindergarten was adopted.