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Early childhood scholarships to get a push

“I’m putting families in charge of making decisions. We’ve created an approach that gets pretty strong bipartisan support.”— DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler, pictured at right, on his bill to expand early childhood education funding

“I’m putting families in charge of making decisions. We’ve created an approach that gets pretty strong bipartisan support.”— DFL Rep. Ryan Winkler on his bill to expand early childhood education funding

Winkler bill would devote an additional $20 million to aid

Late one night near the tail end of the 2013 legislative session, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, took to the House floor to register a complaint. While his fellow Democrats heaped praise on the education omnibus funding bill then before the House, Winkler zeroed in on late changes made to the aspect of the bill dealing with early childhood education.

In a strongly worded criticism, Winkler blamed the Department of Education for moving to change the system of scholarship grants for the state’s preschoolers.

Nearly nine months later tempers have cooled, and Winkler is now gearing up for a second chance during the coming session. In January, he pre-filed a bill that would restore $20 million worth of scholarship funding for fiscal 2015, which begins in July of this year, and would remove the existing $5,000 cap on scholarship awards.

The bill would increase the available scholarship funds to $43 million. That amount would then double in each subsequent year until demand around the state is fully met.

House Education Finance Committee chair Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said the Legislature would need to await news from the February economic forecast before setting its spending targets. If, as projected, the state is left with a surplus in the $800 million range, Marquart does not expect the DFL’s funding priorities to be any different from 2013, when increases to education spending were a dominant theme throughout the session.

“Our number one priority, in terms of investments, has been education,” Marquart said. “I wouldn’t expect anything else other than that.”

Department of Education compromise?

Despite the public disagreements that cropped up last session, Winkler said he thinks the Department of Education will support his changes this time around.

“We’ve spent some time talking, and I’m hopeful that we can find some path forward we can all agree on,” he said.

Beyond the state agency’s potential opposition, Winkler said he is unaware of any organized resistance to growing the scholarship program. Last session, the Education Minnesota teachers union did not take a firm public position in favor or against the scholarship proposal.

The notion of increasing scholarship availability for early childhood education has backers on both sides of the aisle. Thinking back to last session, Winkler recalled that Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, signed on as a co-sponsor to his bill and has secured the Republican freshman’s support on the 2014 legislation as well.

“We’re putting families in charge of making decisions,” Winkler said. “We’ve created an approach that gets pretty strong bipartisan support.”

Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, argues that the recent movement in favor of such scholarships can be traced back to the years when Republicans held the majority. Woodard, who serves as GOP lead on the House Education Finance Committee, would be supportive of increasing the amount of scholarship funding, but wanted to make sure the grants were going to students who are at risk of falling behind.

“What we’re concerned about,” he said, “is how that money actually gets to people that need it most.”

Each of several key legislators view the topic through the prism of the state’s woeful achievement gap, which has seen white students vastly outperform their black and Latino counterparts for years. Marquart named closing the achievement gap as a “top goal” for the Legislature, while Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, described early learning programs as “among the key strategies” in closing the performance deficit.

Senate companion bill

The Senate version of Winkler’s bill will be carried by freshman Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, and Wiger, chair of the Senate Education Finance Committee, said he intends to join her as a co-author. He highlighted improvements in the area of kindergarten preparedness, with the statewide level having leapt from around 50 percent to above 70 percent in recent years.

“But that’s not close enough,” Wiger said. “We want them all ready.”

The idea of education funding fatigue has crossed the mind of Scott Croonquist, a veteran lobbyist and executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. Despite having an “excellent session” for spending on education priorities in 2013, Croonquist argues that the past session was not enough to make up for a stretch of lean years.

“It was quite a struggle for an entire decade,” Croonquist said. “We lost ground [on funding] to inflation, and you really can’t make that up in one year.”

Croonquist’s organization is broadly supportive of increases for early learning programs. To that end, he said school districts are “very intrigued” by a bill pre-filed by House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, which would see the state fully fund universal preschool for 4-year-old children. Similar programs are already in place in several states, including Wisconsin.

Preschool funding for kids that age exists in some areas already, but Murphy described the system as a “patchwork” that is leaving some kids behind. She said she does not know whether the bill will get a floor vote during the coming session, but said it was important for the Legislature to begin thinking about the next step in early learning.

“I think now is the moment to have the conversation to continue to press ourselves,” Murphy said.

For his part, Marquart said he “absolutely” favors Murphy’s idea, but was unsure if it would fit within current budget plans. Marquart guessed that such an expansion could cost up to $250 million to enact, and was probably better considered “a few sessions down the road.”

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