An initiative that added 4,000 seats to the state’s preschool programs over the past two years is set to expire this year, absent legislative action.
The bill was held over by the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division Thursday for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF2630, sponsored by Sen. Melissa Wiklund (DFL-Bloomington), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.
Created by the 2017 Legislature, School Readiness Plus is a mixed delivery program for 4 year olds with the purpose of preparing them to enter kindergarten. School districts could either start a School Readiness Plus program, choose to create or expand a new voluntary pre-kindergarten program.
The 4,000 seats added during the 2018-19 school year brought the state’s total preschool program enrollment up to approximately 7,160 students. It’s set to decrease to approximately 3,160 seats if the program isn’t extended.
In addition to making the School Readiness Plus program permanent, the proposal would create an early learning scholarship special revenue fund. It’s a recommendation of Gov. Tim Walz that recognizes the current funding stream through the General Fund isn’t aligning well with program logistics, explained Kate Lynne Snyder, government relations director for the Department of Education.
A General Fund appropriation needs to expire within 24 months, she said, however, statute gives administrators 12 months to distribute the funds, families 12 months to choose a program and an additional three months to bill, for a total of 27 months. The discrepancy is leading to the cancelation of unused funds.
“By transferring the early learning scholarship appropriation into a special revenue fund, this will avoid cancelations that are happening in that program,” she said, “and we estimate that this will lead to 1,000 more scholarships being given to families without increasing the appropriation.”
Pinto referred to a posted amendment, but didn’t offer it.
Explaining its purpose is to generate ideas on how to improve the bill, Pinto said he’d consider testifier and member feedback regarding it when compiling the division’s report.
Referencing the amendment, Rep. Josh Heintzeman (R-Nisswa) asked for assurance that none of the early learning scholarship funding would be transferred to another program, namely the Child Care Assistance Program.
Pinto pledged that all the money appropriated to the program would remain within it.
“The intent is not that it move elsewhere,” he said. “In fact, I will fight that very, very hard.”