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Legislative leaders propose funding all-day, every day kindergarten

Morris Area Elementary School Principal Ken Gagner (left) speaks with Rep. Paul Marquart, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, after a town hall meeting in Morris on Saturday, March 16, 2013.

MORRIS –- All-day, every day kindergarten could be a reality for all Minnesota students, if the priorities of the House Education Finance Committee make it into the final state budget.

“We have set a goal in our education finance committee: putting our kids on the path to the world's best workforce,” Rep. Paul Marquart, chair of the House Education Finance Committee, said at a town hall in Morris on Saturday.

“We're going to make sure that every single dime [of education funding] goes towards efforts and strategies that have a proven record of increasing teacher performance or closing the achievement gap,” he said.

To meet these goals, Marquart said his committee is going to emphasize putting money into programs like early childhood education, fully funding all day, every day kindergarten and making sure that all students are reading at grade level by third grade.

Other priorities for the committee will include more emphasis on identifying students who are “off-track” and aligning high schools with the state's higher education institutions to help prepare students for college or careers, said Marquart.

It will be important for all education funding to provide value to students, communities and the state to help eliminate the “public confidence gap” schools are facing, Marquart said.

“The day is done when we can just tell the public that we're just going to plop money on the formula,” he said. “I'm going to work to have language in the bill – we might call it a 'student achievement revenue' – that says you can use these dollars for things only that you're doing to hit these goals.”

Marquart said he also hopes to do away with the Graduation-Required Assessments for Diploma (GRAD) tests that students are required to pass and replace them with an assessment model that more accurately gauges both aptitude and college or career readiness.

Rep. Jay McNamar, who joined Marquart for the meeting, emphasized that education is a top priority for the DFL and that legislature is doing “everything we can” to make funding programs like all-day, every day kindergarten possible.

“If kids are successful in kindergarten, their chances of being successful in school is a high percentage. Not only do they graduate, but they stay out of trouble,” said McNamar.

Morris Area Superintendent Scott Monson said he appreciated the committee's commitment to all-day, every day kindergarten and liked the emphasis placed on helping students read at grade level. However, as a result of the federal sequestration, schools will receive less Title I funding which helps target math and reading education, Monson said.

“If we have a goal of closing that achievement gap... the sequestration with a decrease in Title I funding, that's oil and water,” concurred Pat Westby, superintendent of West Central Area Schools. “We're fighting against each other on that.”

Morris Area Elementary School Principal Ken Gagner encouraged Marquart to make sure the public is educated about why the GRAD tests are being abandoned so it doesn't appear that schools are lowering standards.

“What was disappointing about the GRAD tests was even if you passed them it still didn't say you were going to get to college and take that math class for credit,” Gagner said. “We really have to educate the public that we're not lowering standards, that we're simply getting a better system in place.”

What will happen with state funding will be more clear this week when the majority leadership in the House and Senate release their fiscal targets for the upcoming budget discussions.

Governor Mark Dayton has proposed a $343 million increase to education funding, but Marquart hopes legislative leaders will increase that amount.