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Bill would increase funding for early childhood screenings

Mary Yackley and Kristine Wehrkamp testify in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Julie Sandstede, right, that would provide increased funding for early childhood screening. Photo by Andrew VonBank

Even before a child’s first day in the classroom, he or she undergoes an important evaluation — early childhood screening. 

Sponsored by Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing), HF837 would increase state reimbursements school districts receive for providing these health and development screenings. The bill was held over Tuesday by the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division for possible omnibus bill inclusion. There is no Senate companion.

Kristine Wehrkamp, executive director of community education at Robbinsdale Area Schools, said the screenings are instrumental in identifying potential health and development delays.

“This allows us to assess children’s growth and development, and provide for them special services such as early childhood special education if necessary,” she said. “If left unidentified these delays could result in a gap in kindergarten readiness.”

School districts are required to provide free screenings for children ages 3 to 5. However, the state’s reimbursement is insufficient to cover screening costs, leaving districts to make up the deficit.

A 2018 report on early childhood programming by the Office of the Legislative Auditor indicated that the state’s reimbursement covered on average 73 percent of screening costs statewide in Fiscal Year 2016. Statewide, school districts spent an additional $1.3 million that year, beyond the state’s reimbursement for their programs.

“We know that the financial struggles of our school districts are very serious and important services like these are critical,” Sandstede said. “I feel that we have the responsibility to take on these screenings.”

All students must be screened prior to enrolling in a public school unless the child’s parent provides a signed statement of conscientiously held beliefs against it. Parents can opt to have their student screened by other institutions — like a public or private health care provider — however, requiring school districts to offer screenings improves access and ensures families are able to meet this requirement. 

Screenings assess hearing and vision, immunization history, a child’s height and weight, and identify developmental progress and risk factors that may influence learning. Additionally, districts provide ancillary services such as outreach and follow-up with families, which are expenses that are not reimbursed by the state.

“Our goal is to partner with parents to ensure they understand the importance of early childhood screening and how it can help their children’s growth and development,” Wehrkamp said. “A community education department’s reimbursed when a child completes a childhood screening. However, it doesn’t cover the cost for outreach and follow-up with parents.”

Under current law, a school district or charter school receives $75 for each 3-year-old screened, $50 for each 4-year-old screened, $40 for each 5- or 6-year-old screened before enrolling in kindergarten, and $30 for all other students screened within the first 30 days of kindergarten enrollment.

This bill would increase reimbursement by 25 percent across all ages, beginning in Fiscal Year 2020.

“The bill includes an open appropriation, which I hope at some point will be replaced with a very robust amount for this service,” Sandstede said.

Noting some districts have greater deficits, Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair, asked why a 25 percent across-the-board funding increase was chosen and not more.

Sandstede said it’s the average shortfall districts are experiencing statewide, as determined by the auditors’ 2018 evaluation.

 


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