DFL plan has support, but at least one lawmaker raises questions
by T.W. Budig and John Gessner
Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, proposed on Jan. 10 a bill that would provide funding for all-day kindergarten at Minnesota’s public schools.
The legislation does not mandate that all-day kindergarten be offered.
“Studies have shown that students who attend all-day kindergarten programs score better on tests and make stronger academic gains as they move through the first and second grade,” said Clausen, a former Rosemount High School principal and current part-time grant writer for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District.
According to the Senate DFL, about 49 percent of Minnesota children attend all-day kindergarten.
Of these, about 17 percent are enrolled in programs where a fee is charged.
Senate Democrats estimate the cost of their all-day kindergarten proposal at $170 million a year.
Senate Democrats cited a multiyear study by the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District that concluded test scores of all-day kindergarten students were higher than a control group of students.
The boost was sustained over the next three years, with some drop-off by the third grade.
The study was based on students who had free, full-day kindergarten in the 2003-04 school year. The program fell to budget cuts the following year.
But the district restored free, full-day kindergarten this school year, using its allocation of compensatory aid — state money based on the number of students who qualify for free or subsidized meals — to fund the program. The district’s compensatory aid has grown rapidly in recent years.
One area lawmaker, Republican Rep. Pam Myhra of Burnsville, questions the wisdom of all-day kindergarten.
“My concern is that in an effort to increase test scores, we’re actually pushing academics to younger students that are not developmentally ready for it,” said Myhra, who represents House District 56A.
Myhra said her concerns arise from what she’s learned as a member of the Early Learning Fellows program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Money would be better spent working with at-risk families to improve students’ “executive functions,” such as comprehension, self-control and getting along in groups, she said.
“To my way of thinking, expanding kindergarten is too late,” said Myhra, the lead Republican on the House Early Childhood and Youth Development Policy Committee. “We really need to work with families that are in poverty or having difficulties earlier on to avoid some of those problems. Some parents, for example, don’t realize the importance of reading to their children, having conversations.”
Myhra said she intends to introduce legislation to fund “voluntary home visits” to at-risk families.
Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher enthusiastically endorsed the proposal for free, all-day kindergarten statewide.
“Providing universal access to all-day, every day kindergarten would be among the most significant steps Minnesota has ever taken to reduce the academic achievement gap,” said the teacher union president. “It’s a proven approach that educators can support as it moves through the Legislature.”
Dayton has indicated that early childhood education was one of his top legislative priorities.