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Early-childhood education money in dispute

Jerry Firkus, a Minnesota correctional office in Moose Lake, tells a union crowd in the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday, March 28, 2017, that the state should not put prisoners in a private prison. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 4
Minnesota state union workers rally Tuesday, March 28, 2017, in favor of more money for some programs and more safety for state workers. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 4
Jerry Firkus, a Minnesota correctional office in Moose Lake, tells a union crowd in the Minnesota Capitol Tuesday, March 28, 2017, that the state should not put prisoners in a private prison. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 4
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said he would veto Republican House bills for education finance that don't include an additional $100 million for voluntary preschool opportunities. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service4 / 4

ST. PAUL—Additional funding proposed by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton would extend classes for 4 year olds to nearly 200 additional school districts throughout the state, but Republican representatives say the plan restricts families' early-learning choices.

Dayton proposes an additional $150 million to establish classes for 4 year olds at public schools, which his office estimates would serve 13,800 more children.

He said that he would not sign an education funding bill as proposed by the state House, which does not earmark funds for the new classes.

"We'll negotiate something better," Dayton said.

Now, $25 million is split among 74 school districts to finance classes for 4 year olds.

The House education finance bill would allow those schools to continue classes for 4 year olds similar to what Democrat Dayton proposed, but the funding could be used for other early-education programs.

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon of Eden Prairie, House education finance chairwoman, said her bill would offer families more choices for preschool.

"We're not trying to direct dollars so that all 4 year olds will end up at the public schools for their preschool," Loon said. "It's not going to work for every family or every school. We're trying to maintain flexibility and a program that empowers parents."

Dayton called Loon's proposal "a poke in the eye" during a news conference Tuesday.

"We'll negotiate something better," he said.

The House plan would keep funding available for schools that already have classes for 4 year olds, increase spending $49.5 million for early childhood programs and add $25 million for preschool scholarships.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, do not change pre-kindergarten funding, but neither do they not expand it to more schools.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said school readiness programs, like those proposed in the House bill, differ from preschool because they often take place once a week and do not require licensed teachers.

"Our pre-K programs, however, are fully aligned to our K-12 standards," she said. "They work at the school site with teachers. It's like adding a grade."

In other legislative-related developments:

• Hundreds of state union members rallied in the Capitol rotunda, urging funding for projects ranging from roads to better retirement security. They also spoke out against a Republican proposal to send state inmates to a private prison in Appleton.

• Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, sent a letter to the editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead apologizing to Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, for a comment he made in an earlier letter about driver's license legislation tied to undocumented immigrants.

"When I wrote the letter, I assumed Eken was following the lead of Gov. Mark Dayton who publicly called for Democratic senators to oppose the bill over the illegal driver's license issue," Ingebrigtsen wrote. "But instead of writing 'assumed,' I wrote Eken's 'stated reason' was the driver's license issue. For that I was wrong, and I apologize."

• Senators favored 52-15 a $2.2 billion spending bill for public safety and the judiciary.

"The bill has absolutely no cuts in any budget areas, and the areas that received additional funding are priorities recognized by our policy committee," Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said about the bill he sponsored.

• The Senate approved 36-31 a higher education bill providing $3.2 billion for higher education, a $100 million increase over the current two-year budget.

The legislation would freeze Minnesota State tuitions statewide and provide a $10 million boost to the state tuition grant program. It also provides financial aid to veterinarians practicing in rural areas, two-year campuses in rural Minnesota and money to help fill teacher and health-care workforce openings.

• Reacting to a much-discussed rural issue, the House voted 106-23 to prevent state agencies from implementing ditch-mowing regulations for a year. Transportation officials issued a rule that would have restricted mowing and baling.

"I still would rather see an all-out prohibition on this overreach, but we need to be able to send the governor a bill he will sign into law and this is the compromise we reached with his administration," Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, said. "The public would have more time to express concerns over just how out-of-touch the bureaucrats are on this issue so we can come back and look at some permanent fixes."

• Representatives voted 130-0 to approve spending $105 million in federal transportation funds. Dayton last week complained that lawmakers had not done that.

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