Ed. commissioner tours, talks in Marshall

/ 26 March 2013 / eunice

Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent, March 26, 2013 – Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius paid a visit to Marshall on Monday, to not only share Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed budget of $640 million for education in Minnesota but also engage in conversations about key investments, such as early childhood and all-day kindergarten funding, with area teachers and administrators.

After touring Park Side Elementary School, Cassellius joined more than 20 educators for a roundtable discussion in the district office professional development room at Marshall Middle School. It’s the third such stop she’s made across the state so far.

“We are really focusing on early learning and trying to make sure the Legislature and Minnesotans understand the value of early learning, how that can help close the achievement gaps and shine a bright light on that,” Cassellius said. “As far as I’m aware, it’s the first time the state has made this kind of commitment to early learning.”

Dayton’s proposal includes $240 million for higher education, $344 million for early childhood to 12th-grade education, $4.5 million for Regional Centers of Excellence, $1.8 million for paperwork reduction and $1 million for school bullying prevention.

“That is what’s really unique about the governor’s budget,” Cassellius said. “He takes a holistic view when he looks at it, from pre-K all the way to higher ed. It’s a $640 million investment in public education in this state.”

A $44 million investment to pre-K scholarships would go to families that need them to ensure that their children get a good educational start, Cassellius said.

The funding would cover 10,000 of the 25-30,000 children who currently need scholarships, she said, emphasizing that the current child poverty rate of first-grade students in Minnesota is 42.5 percent. Finland, which people often compare to Minnesota, Cassellius said, has a 3.5 percent child poverty level.

“When did Minnesotans ever accept that as OK?” she said. “That’s free or reduced lunch populations across all of Minnesota, too. So we’ve got to make sure we turn this tide.”

Along with the early childhood scholarships, Dayton’s wish list includes an additional $40 million investment for all-day kindergarten.

“It’s still optional to have all-day kindergarten, but it provides more funding, about $980 per student to a district that wants to offer it,” she said. “It’s a pretty big increase and incentive for districts.”

Currently, about 54 percent of Minnesota schools offer all-day kindergarten, but with the extra bump, Cassellius said, many more will likely provide that for their young students.

“We think we’ll get up to about 85 percent with the incentive to do so,” Cassellius said. “Most school districts want to do it, it’s just a matter of revenue. They see the value.”

For a district like Marshall, which set all-day kindergarten as one of its top priorities a number of years back, that money could be allotted elsewhere.

“You’re not penalized for already having it,” Cassellius said. “What it does then is free up dollars.”

Cassellius pointed out that many districts which offer all-day kindergarten have had to forego teacher raises, increase class sizes, cut programming or opportunities for students, go to their communities to get referendums or some other type of alternative.

“There’s only so much money,” she said. “If you invest in the unfunded cost of all-day kindergarten or the unfunded cost of special education, everything else suffers. So districts can re-dedicate the money for something else. It’s a big deal.”

The early learning focus is two-fold, Cassellius said, noting that support for high-quality Pre-K and Headstart programs needs to be continued. And while better access to early childhood opportunities are important, all-day kindergarten is as well because it will help catch some of those at-risk learners who didn’t have access prior to that, she said.

“The governor tried to have the budget reflect the faces of the kids who really need that support,” Cassellius said. “Overall, he adds money to the per pupil formula ($52 for each student) because all kids need additional support. But specifically, he adds dollars to early learning so that every kid has a great start.”

An emphasis on early learning strengthens a student’s educational foundation, hopefully ensuring that every child is reading well by third-grade, Cassellius said. Optimistically, it will also provide a strong foundation for ongoing academic success, including high school graduation and post-secondary completion, she said.

Overall, the state is up in mathematics, reading and graduation rates, Cassellius said, despite more rigorous benchmarks. So now is the time to really set the plan into action, she said.

“To see this kind of bending the curve trends makes us hopeful,” Cassellius said. “If we can push down the accelerator and push on our investments now, we will not be the worst in the nation for achievement gaps, but be leading the nation in making sure every child has a great opportunity to do their best in school.”

MPS teachers and area administrators shared some of the ongoing challenges they currently have within their districts with Cassellius during the round table event. Everyone appeared to be in agreement that collaboration was key for needed improvements and that the current direction is a positive one.

“The governor has strong values and he said to go out and talk to real Minnesota teachers to find out what they need and to share those great stories of success,” Cassellius said. “I was able to see that in some of your classrooms (Monday), some of the integrated technology that you’re using, the shared learning, the innovations you’re using to get kids thinking. It was a great experience.”