Dan Sparks: Proposed education budget signals bad news

Published 10:46 pm Friday, May 12, 2017

Senate Report by Dan Sparks

The 2017 legislative session is constitutionally mandated to end on May 22, which is just a week away. The state budget is still being finalized, but I wanted to dedicate this time to talk about a particular slice of the budget — and that’s the education bill, which the Senate and House majority just passed on May 9.

To begin with, the Republican education bill is $300 million for the next two years, which translates to about $100 million less for the per student funding formula than the governor’s proposal. That means schools will get about $30 less per student. The funding formula is the main funding driver for school classroom budgets, and when the Legislature’s investments don’t keep up with increased costs — it means schools are forced to make cuts.

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These cuts always have an effect on teachers, support staff and the community. In fact, some schools are already preparing layoff notices. At a time of surplus, it is unacceptable that the Legislature is passing budgets that so inadequately fund our public schools.

Dan Sparks

The House and Senate education bill also includes another noteworthy cut — a $47 million cut to the very successful voluntary pre-K program. This cut effectively ends the program that helped send 3,300 4-year-old children in 74 school districts to pre-K last fall.

Both Austin and Albert Lea school districts received state funds this school year, and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith recently visited Halverson Elementary, which saw 100 4-year-olds attend pre-K this year. Pre-K programming helps prepare young learners for kindergarten. On top of the basics, the programming can include structured play, how to stay out of struggles with other children, managing emotions and how to form lines and follow directions. Pre-K teaches the building blocks of how to learn — so that when children do enter kindergarten they’re ready to hit the ground running.

I spoke with Albert Lea School District’s coordinator of early learning Jenny Hanson recently, who told me some pretty interesting stories about just how beneficial pre-K money has been to Albert Lea families. She told me the fact that voluntary pre-K was free and made a big difference in the ability of schools to attract families. She also said that pre-K funding and availability has created some of the most diverse classrooms she’s seen in her six years in the district — much more reflective of the general population than previous early learning classrooms.

An alternate method of funding early learning is through Pathway 1 and Pathway 2 scholarships; she said in her time with the district, no families have ever approached her inquiring about them — meaning the district has to do a lot of outreach, and even then there are many barriers to parents getting their children into the program; for example, requiring proof of income and other items that aren’t easily accessible for everyone.

My biggest takeaway is that pre-K dollars have removed barriers to getting 4-year-olds into pre-K classrooms. It’s allowed Albert Lea schools to vastly expand their reach and get more youngsters the programming they need to be prepared for kindergarten. Taking away this money would be a giant step in the wrong direction, and would erase the immense progress that’s been made in the last year.

I want to thank Jenny for her hard work, and teachers Andrea Hollerud and Emma Arboe also of Albert Lea, for taking time out of their schedules to come to St. Paul this week to discuss the importance of pre-K. Your efforts are important, and your voices are critical to these conversations.

At the end of the day, I think we all want what’s best for our students. For me — that means properly funding schools to give them the tools to help kids succeed. It means allowing schools to hire and utilize support staff like school counselors, nurses, special education teachers and services, and ensuring that class sizes are manageable, so that kids can have the time and attention they need to thrive.

While the education bill that just passed is bad for Minnesota schools, it’s also not the last word. Preserving education funding and increasing, rather than cutting pre-K programming is one of Gov. Dayton’s top priorities. I will be encouraging him to stand strong in negotiations to ensure our kids continue to have access to high-quality public school educations. After all, they are our future.

Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, is the District 27 senator.