Expanding the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, reducing the special education cross-subsidy and improving school safety are the top priorities in Gov. Mark Dayton’s supplemental budget recommendations for E-12 education.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius presented the $162.2 million proposal to the House Education Finance Committee Tuesday. The recommendations are reflected in HF4328, sponsored by Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), which was laid over for possible omnibus bill inclusion. There is no Senate companion.
The largest proposed investment would increase the special education funding formula, resulting in an increase of $17 million in Fiscal Year 2019, $21.4 million in Fiscal Year 2020 and $22 million in Fiscal Year 2021. Cassellius said the additional money would be essential to help school districts manage the special-education cross-subsidy.
The proposal also includes making the voluntary pre-kindergarten program permanent and would expand it with $57.2 million appropriated between Fiscal Year 2019 and Fiscal Year 2021. Currently, the program serves 22,500 children ages 3 to 5. In addition to the increase, the proposal would expand program eligibility to any child under age 5.
“The earlier you start with children, particularly low-income children, the better off we are in terms of meeting the outcomes for kindergarten readiness,” Cassellius said.
Rep. Anna Wills (R-Rosemount) agreed that the program could be beneficial for younger children, but asked if expanding the eligible demographic would exacerbate the waitlist issue the program currently faces.
“I’m just concerned that we wouldn’t be able to reach more children if we already have waitlists that we need to address,” she said.
Additional funding of $30.7 million is also proposed as part of the school safety package. The money could be used by school districts to make facility safety upgrades, hire school resource officers, counselors and provide additional school-linked mental health services.
“The safe schools funding that we have absolutely helps our schools be more safe, and it does impact learning when children come to school and they’re feeling fearful,” Cassellius said. “Doing nothing, I think, is not an option.”
Several education advocacy groups applauded the recommendation to increase school safety funding and flexibility. However, Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls) asked if there was enough evidence to support the significant facility investments.
“Do we have any evidence facility enhancements, or even SROs, is going to save a single life in the state?” he asked. “I would rather take the $20 million and put it into mental health.”
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