Voluntary program aims to help close achievement gap
First-term Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, is carrying one of the most watched bills in the 2013 legislative session.
The former Rosemount High School principal said this week he is optimistic his proposal to fund voluntary all-day kindergarten will pass in the House and the Senate.
“This is a priority for a lot of people in the Senate,” he said.
Clausen views the bill as not only a way to improve early learning outcomes and close the achievement gap between white and minority students but also to create curricular equity among school districts.
About half of Minnesota children attend all-day kindergarten, according to Senate DFLers.
Districts currently offering the programs are paying for them through the general fund or about 17 percent of children’s families are paying fees.
Clausen said waiting lists and lottery systems are not equitable ways to offer the program.
Whether or not a child has the opportunity to attend all-day kindergarten shouldn’t be determined by what district a child lives in, Clausen said.
Clausen’s bill would need $130 million per year to pay for the statewide voluntary offering. Most of that money will be used to pay kindergarten teachers who will deliver the instruction.
The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District concluded test scores of the district’s students who all had free, full-day kindergarten in the 2003-04 school year were higher than students who were enrolled in the 2004-05 year when the all-day program was dropped and transfer students who joined the 2003-04 class when it entered first-grade.
The boost was sustained over the next three years, with some drop-off by the third grade.
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.
Clausen said it is extremely important for the state to invest in children because the returns will be paid back through higher achieving students and more skilled workers.
He said studies have shown that better early childhood education results in graduates who go on to have improved basic skills, have fewer criminal justice contacts and earn more money in the workplace.
The bill has some Republican supporters.
Republican Dean Urdahl, Grove City, is an author of the companion legislation in the House.
Another education bill that is receiving attention is a proposed two-year tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota.
Clausen said Minnesota graduates carry the third-highest average debt level (nearly $30,000) among students in the 50 states, and Minnesota is fifth highest among the percentage of students carrying college debt (71 percent).
The bill is a recognition that tuition costs are burdening students, and Clausen said lawmakers are proposing other measures to help college students.
Another provision would allow students to refinance college loans at a lower interest rate. Another would provide a tax credit to Minnesota graduates who stay in the state to work.
A proposal that could have a significant local impact would be the acceptance of the Minnesota Zoo’s $15 million request to fund capital improvements.
The request includes money to refurbish the Discover Bay and snow monkey exhibits, among other work.
Another request to help the zoo in Apple Valley would provide $4.75 million for zoo programs through the Legacy Amendment funding.
Clausen said he is supporting both requests since the zoo has such a wide impact on Dakota County.
With an estimated 1.4 million visitors annually, the zoo has a $146 million impact on the local economy, according to Clausen, in addition to providing hundreds of jobs.
In the district
Clausen plans to have another town hall meeting in the district from 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, at Galaxie Library in Apple Valley.
He said he will attend as long as the Senate is not in session.
The meeting’s focus will be on education, which Clausen said is a very important issue in the area.
Clausen said his recent joint town hall with Rep. Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, was very positive.
He viewed the bipartisan meeting as an extension of what he and Wills both campaigned on, which was reaching across the political aisle.
“It was a good demonstration of that,” he said of the meeting that attracted about 150 people.
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