Dayton sheds light on education funding increases; part of budget to be released next week

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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — More than one-third of Minnesota's projected $1 billion budget surplus will fund education programs meant to close achievement gaps if Gov. Mark Dayton gets his way.

Dayton plans to recommend about $372 million for expanded early education scholarships, pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs and subsidized school breakfast, he told a conference of child advocacy groups Friday. An aide later said an increase in the basic per-pupil funding allowance for school districts will be part of that, too.

The governor said he thinks investing in early education is one of the most important ways the state can combat disparities between white students and students of color, which some say are among the worst in the nation.

"We have so many people that are buried under various afflictions in their quality of life," Dayton said. "And yet the society as a whole does not seem to be responsible for those urgent needs."

Dayton didn't go into detail about how he'd distribute the money. Senate Minority Leader David Hann worries that much of the money will go to existing programs that haven't led to dramatic improvements instead of backing new approaches.

"There's no problem that's being solved," the Eden Prairie Republican said. He'd rather see the state focus on meeting measurable goals like reading proficiency benchmarks and consider returning the surplus to voters rather than spending it.

Early-education advocates lauded the proposed spending, part of Dayton's full two-year budget due Tuesday.

"If you don't engage in education as a student, especially early, it affects your entire life," said Frank Forsberg, who chairs the executive committee of the education coalition MinneMinds. "You are just going to be in a bad part of the economy. You're going to be in a low-wage job and it's going to be difficult to raise your family and to live."

Forsberg, who's also a senior vice president at the Greater Twin Cities United Way, called Dayton's pitch a good step after the 2013 Legislature's funding of early education and child care initiatives. That was the state's first notable investment in early education in nearly two decades, Forsberg said.

Dayton also said Friday his budget proposal will include around $160 million in human services spending, $44 million of which would go to service programs that directly affect children. Combined with a $100 million expansion of child care tax credits proposed earlier this week, more than half of the projected surplus is spoken for in Dayton's budget.

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