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Legislators to consider early-childhood funding

ST. PAUL — Teachers already are thinking about a child’s emerging literacy skills when an infant is enrolled at Peace of Mind Early Education Center in Woodbury, Minn.

“As soon as we take in a child, at

6 weeks old, we understand the importance of every interaction we have with that child,” said Nikki Robbins, the center’s founder.

Robbins’ staff considers the sights, sounds and textures their youngest learners experience as first steps on their road to school readiness and academic success.

“All of those things help get those neurons firing to help a child learn effectively,” Robbins said.

Minnesota lawmakers return to the Capitol on March 8 for the 2016 legislative session, poised to tackle a long list of topics — from tax cuts to transportation funding.

With an expected budget surplus of more than $900 million, Gov. Mark Dayton says education — specifically expanding access to early-learning programs — should be at the top of that list. But since the surplus is smaller than earlier, he is trying to decide what education spending increases he can fit in.

A growing number of education advocates say lawmakers should widen their focus on early learning from preschoolers to include children as young as 6 months.

However, an economic and state budget report unveiled Friday produced doubt about whether a plan like Dayton’s is affordable. It reduced the state budget surplus by $300 million, which means many wants will go unfunded.

“I would just urge some caution from all the interest groups,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

Bakk put a priority on addressing child care costs, not expanding school to include all 4-year-olds as Dayton wants.

Many legislative leaders said ongoing costs such as expanding education need to be examined carefully.

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said any new programs “need to be fully paid for,” not leaving the issue for future legislatures.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that just increasing school spending has not improved education.

Dayton agreed that increasing pre-kindergarten funding will be more difficult with the latest budget report, which he called “concerning.”

On March 15, the governor plans to unveil his proposals to change a two-year budget lawmakers passed last year. That supplemental budget plan will contain his education askings.

Dayton often cites early-childhood education as one of the most valuable things the state can do for Minnesotans.

Child development experts say that the majority of brain development occurs in the first three years of life and that achievement gaps between low-income children and their peers emerge as early as 9 months.

“Those early interactions, those early investments really matter,” said Ericca Maas, an early-learning advocate. “If we wait until 3 or 4 (years), you are basically creating a preschool program that is an intervention. You’re not playing catch-up if you start early.”

Dayton pushed the 2015 Legislature to create a voluntary universal public preschool program for 4-year-olds with a $175 million minimum annual price tag. He also wanted lawmakers to expand funding to help younger low-income children and to give child care tax breaks to middle-class parents.

Republicans and some school districts pushed back against a universal system and instead wanted to focus on helping the neediest children. The opponents said universal preschool would be too costly and place a burden on many districts while possibly hurting private providers.

After Dayton vetoed the initial education funding bill, lawmakers agreed in a special session to split roughly $80 million in new funding between public programs and scholarships in the two-year biennial budget.

This year, without changes during this year’s legislative session, Minnesota will spend $120 million on district preschools and scholarships to help low-income children attend public and private programs. An additional $271 million in state and federal funds will help provide child care to more than 30,000 low-income children.

Providing quality early learning and child care to every poor Minnesota child would be neither cheap nor easy.

It would take an additional $150 million a year to provide preschool scholarships to every 3- and 4-year-old who needs one, program advocates say. Another $275 million would cover child care assistance annually for all those who qualify and pay for an increase in the reimbursement rate to encourage more providers to accept children with state subsidies.

Other education issues the 2016 Legislature might tackle include:

* Per pupil funding. School lobbyists fought hard in 2015 to win a 2 percent per year increase in the school funding formula in the latest biennium budget. But district advocates have long wanted lawmakers to tie the formula to inflation and will likely ask at least for another funding increase.

* Testing and accountability. Recent federal law changes gave states new control over student testing and how schools are held accountable. That means the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCA, proficiency tests could be updated and the Multiple Measurement Rating used to judge schools could be improved.

* Special education funding. Districts have long made up the difference between the cost of required special education services and the resources provided by the federal government. The gap costs Minnesota schools about $600 million a year; districts want state lawmakers to take up some of the federal government’s slack.

* Teacher training and recruitment. Minnesota faces a teacher shortage in certain specialties and a growing need to diversify its teaching force.

Forum News Service reporter Don Davis contributed to this report.