Governor seeks permanent pre-k funding


Aundrea Kinney photos/Review • Castle Elementary School in Oakdale is one of the District 622 schools offering free pre-k to 4-year-olds this school year. Without the Legislature supporting renewed or permanent funding, the school may no longer be able to offer any free slots in its pre-k classes.

Aundrea Kinney photos/Review • St. Mark’s Preschool is the longest running preschool in North St. Paul, according to its director, Chris Michel. However, the school is closing at the end of the current school year, largely because it can’t compete with the free pre-k slots offered in the public school system.

Funding affects District 622 and St. Mark’s Preschool differently.

Currently some 4,000 4-year-olds across Minnesota attend pre-kindergarten programs for free, thanks to temporary funding passed by the Minnesota Legislature last session.

However, if funding is not renewed or made permanent by the Legislature, public and charter schools utilizing these funds will begin to be affected during the 2019-2020 school year.

Although it would need to be passed by the Legislature to go into effect, Gov. Mark Dayton included a plan in his supplemental budget proposal released in March to make this $57 million in funding permanent. Dayton’s plan would also increase the funding by 5 percent each year.

“Governor Dayton’s Budget for a Better Minnesota could make this pre-k funding permanent and ensure families are not denied the chance to provide early education options to their kids based on the whims of legislators,” said State Sen. Susan Kent in a statement, adding, “This is an important investment for students, families, and Minnesotans across the state.”

Kent represents District 53, which includes Woodbury, Landfall and parts of Oakdale and Maplewood.

 

State funding helped grow District 622 pre-k

North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Public School District 622 is currently using nearly $800,000 of temporary funding to allow 144 students to attend voluntary pre-k for free. 

The number of pre-k spots would have to be reduced without the continued support of state funding, said Terri Johnson, the District 622 director of community education. The community education department manages the district’s pre-k programs.

However, it’s unlikely that all of the free pre-k slots would disappear, because the district also receives about $350,000 of ongoing funding, related to legislation passed in 2016, that allowed 76 pre-k students to attend for free this school year, and would not be affected in future years.

In the last two years in which the district received state pre-k funding, the District 622 pre-k program for 3- and 4-year-olds grew by 200 available spots, Johnson said.

District 622 Superintendent Christine Osorio said in an August 2017 interview that pre-k programs are important because they help children get acclimated to the school environment and school rituals. She added that these programs also help build pre-literacy and pre-math skills as well as motor skills, social and emotional skills, and vocabulary.

She also stressed how important pre-k programs are in closing achievement gaps, which are still very small when students are young.

“Renewing pre-k funding is a smart investment for taxpayers and it is the right thing to do,” said State Sen. Chuck Wiger, who represents District 43, which includes North St. Paul, Mahtomedi, Birchwood, Willernie and part of Maplewood, Oakdale and White Bear Lake.

 

The downside of 

free pre-k

As much as the funding has been beneficial for the public school system, it may be at the expense of private preschool and pre-k programs in the area. Pre-k and preschool are names often used interchangeably for comparable programs serving the same age group.

After 51 years of operation, St. Mark’s Preschool will be closing its doors at the end of the 2017-2018 school year.

“With the governor pushing so much funding for the public schools, our enrollment’s declined,” said Chris Michel, director of St. Mark’s Preschool. “We just can’t fight with free.”

Tuition at the nonprofit preschool cost parents about $1,100 per student for the 2017-2018 school year.

St. Mark’s used to have two classes with 20 students each, plus a waiting list, Michel said, but this year the classes have nearly half as many students enrolled — 12 in one class and 13 students in the other.

While Michel lists the chief cause of the decline as the growing free pre-k classes offered in the District 622 system and she knows of other east metro preschools that have closed because of competition with free programs, she acknowledged that another component to the low enrollment may be that St. Mark’s doesn’t offer classes for older students, like North St. Paul’s St. Peter Catholic
School does.

This means students would have to switch to another school after preschool, and because there aren’t other classes in the building, St. Mark’s must always pay for two teachers regardless of enrollment, just in case of emergencies. 

“Every year in January we start enrollment and every year by the time summer comes we’re thinking, ‘Oh, are we going to get enough kids to fill the class?’” Michel said, adding, “I would rather go out on our terms.”

Dayton explained at a March 27 press conference that state funding for pre-k is important because some parts of Minnesota did not offer any educational programs before kindergarten, but there are public schools in neighborhoods that are now providing parents an option for their children.

Although Dayton said that “public schools are where you bring people together of all backgrounds,” he added, “What the kids need is the opportunity to be part of a quality program wherever it should be, and get the benefit of it.”


 

– Aundrea Kinney can be reached at 651-748-7822 or akinney@lillienews.com

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