Senate passes education plan to send $365 million more toward schools



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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The Minnesota Senate approved an education budget Wednesday that directs $365 million more to schools, much more than the House but only about half what Gov. Mark Dayton wanted.

The DFL-controlled Senate vote comes with just a few weeks left for leaders to work out differences with the GOP-controlled House. Both parties have expressed skepticism with Dayton's strong push to fund preschool for all 4-year-olds statewide, agreeing on the importance of early education but putting far fewer dollars toward it.

Sen. Chuck Wiger's education proposal, which passed 39-28, would put $65 million more into an existing state program that lets school districts partner with private early learning providers to offer pre-kindergarten programming.

"It's a proven program, it's high-quality ... and we can do it within budget," the Maplewood Democrat said.

Minority Republicans and a few Democrats said they were concerned the proposal wouldn't give enough money to schools without conditions on how they spend it. Republicans tried unsuccessfully to move the extra preschool funding to the state's general education fund.

"If there's one message we need to make loud and clear today, that is we trust our local schools and we should give them flexibility," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake.

Minnesota's projected $1.9 billion surplus has lawmakers fighting over how much should be funneled into education, with Dayton's nearly $700 million target setting the high mark. The second-term governor argues now is the time to offer voluntary high-quality preschool programming to every 4-year-old in Minnesota.

His pitch has so far fallen flat with legislative leaders. The Senate's $365 million education booster shot doesn't fund universal pre-kindergarten. Neither does the $157 million House plan, which puts the bulk of its new early learning money in scholarships for low-income families.

Dayton said the preschool push is still one of his top priorities for the session, even as it butts up against the much more modest Senate plan and the House GOP's $2 billion tax relief package on the floor Wednesday.

Education makes up more than one-third of Minnesota's $40 billion budget. And though the state's students beat national averages for reading and math proficiency, white students still graduate high school at rates far higher than their black, Hispanic and Native American peers.

Lawmakers tout early education as one way to combat such gaps. But many advocates say the state will get a better return on its investment by targeting the neediest families instead of putting up the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary for Dayton's blanket preschool approach.

The Senate also passed a policy bill Wednesday that would cap the amount of time students can spend on standardized tests and let local school boards, rather than the state, approve four-day school weeks.

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