Dayton takes pitch for statewide preschool to Minnesota's smallest students

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APPLE VALLEY, Minnesota — Gov. Mark Dayton took his pitch for statewide preschool directly to Minnesota's smallest students on Friday as he gears up to convince legislators to fund one of his top priorities.

The Democrat visited 4-year-olds at Westview Elementary school for nearly an hour Friday — in preschool parlance, from circle time to play time. Dayton paged through books with students and helped as the class of 20 practiced their alphabet.

"My name starts with an M and it rhymes with 'shark,'" he rhymed.

It's one of several stops Dayton has planned as he and lawmakers approach a special session. Education funding will be the main event in that overtime period. The governor vetoed the Legislature's public school budget this week, saying it fell short of the funding necessary, including money for a statewide preschool program.

After visiting the school, Rep. Tara Mack argued the bill the Legislature passed was sufficient. That budget bumped up funding to schools by $400 million, with much of the money going to increase the state's per-pupil funding formula. Mack said she and other Republican lawmakers are concerned about schools that may not have the space or manpower to host a preschool program.

"We need to make sure that we are empowering school districts to use the money we're giving as they best see fit," the Apple Valley Republican said.

But Dayton says programs like the one at Westview would better prepare all students for school and help tackle an achievement gap. Preschool teacher Janet Callahan stressed to the governor and lawmakers Friday that their program is not just about teaching children to write and count, but emotionally preparing them for kindergarten.

Callahan told the governor a story about teaching her students how to handle themselves when there weren't enough Legos.

"Yeah, I think we could probably learn from that," Dayton said of himself and the Legislature.

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