ST. PAUL - Minnesota taxpayers will fund free pre-kindergarten for 3,302 4-year-olds this fall - but it's still a far cry from what Gov. Mark Dayton would like.
Dayton and state education officials on Monday announced what districts will receive money to start the programs. Those in the area include Duluth - which will get about $409,000 to serve 66 kids - as well as Grand Rapids, Greenway and Cook County.
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; 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 state 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," Dayton said.
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 preschool 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.
Myers-Wilkins, Piedmont and Laura MacArthur elementary schools in Duluth will receive the district's portion of the money for pre-kindergarten slots.
News Tribune staff writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.
Pre-K money for Northland districts
Northeastern Minnesota school districts receiving state funding for free, voluntary pre-kindergarten, and how many kids the money will allow it to serve:
- Cook County, 45
- Deer River, 46
- Duluth, 66
- Floodwood, 15
- Grand Rapids, 15
- Greenway, 35
- McGregor, 27
- Mesabi East, 30
- St. Louis County, 8
Area school districts that applied for money - and how many kids they hoped to serve - but won't receive it because of the funding cap:
- Barnum, 28
- Cromwell-Wright, 14
- International Falls, 72
- Littlefork-Big Falls, 26
- Nashwauk-Keewatin, 23
- St. Louis County, 92*
- South Koochiching-Rainy River, 27
- Virginia, 130
- Willow River, 30
- Floodwood, 5*
* Both the St. Louis County and Floodwood school districts received partial funding.