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GOP Cools To $75M Wish To Expand Preschool

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking a major expansion of a preschool program launched last year, but Republicans have expressed reluctance to tripling the program's cost.

In his budget proposal released this week, the Democratic governor asked for about $75 million to expand his prized early education program. More than 100 school districts that requested startup funds didn't get them as the Legislature put up $25 million in the first year. Though Republicans eventually relented last year after pressure from the governor, GOP lawmakers are hesitant to further expand government spending after seizing control of the Legislature.

Though the funds are only a small part of the $45.8 billion budget, Dayton has made it clear during his time in office that early education is one of his top priorities. Last year, Dayton scaled back his goal of statewide universal early education and strong-armed Republicans into setting aside $25 million for a voluntary program.

After multiple schools who applied for funding were turned down during the program's first year — Dayton's office said the 109 school districts not accepted would have accommodated nearly 6,800 students — the governor has tripled his request this year.

And with two years left in office, some at the Capitol have acknowledged that Dayton's push for expanded preschool may only grow stronger.

"Clearly the demand is strong throughout the state," said Sen. Chuck Wiger. "Early education, and education overall, is a legacy issue for Gov. Dayton. This being his last budget ... it's going to get a great deal of attention."

The Maplewood lawmaker, a top Democrat on education issues, acknowledged there will be no shortage of spending priorities vying for extra funding, including other education measures like the governor's hope to increase public schools' per-pupil funding in each of the next two years. And how much may go to expanding preschool options will depend on whether the state's $1.4 billion budget surplus expands or shrinks in late February, after which lawmakers will start assembling their own budgets.

Still, Wiger said the desire across the state to offer preschool — and Dayton's emphasis on it — gives him hope that Republicans will get on board.

Republican Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt acknowledged the need to direct funds toward early education, saying it is an important part of closing the state's achievement gap. But Daudt reiterated Tuesday that he favors scholarships for early learners rather than pushing them into a state-run program. Many other Republicans, including Rep. Jenifer Loon who heads a House education committee, said scholarships allow parents to choose a school that best suits their families.

Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican, said she has yet to see enough evidence of the program's success in prior meetings with the education commissioner.

And overlaps in funding between existing state scholarships and districts that were awarded funding through the new program create opportunities for the governor's program to more efficiently distribute the funds to reach more schools, she said, rather than increase the amount spent.

(© Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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