As lawmakers wait to see what Gov. Mark Dayton will do with his veto pen, education advocates fear they’ll lose the fragile coalition that put together an education bill a lot of them like.

Lawmakers scrambled unsucessfully Monday night to strike a deal to avoid Dayton’s threatened veto of a bill with $400 million in new spending for prekindergarten through high school that would have given him progress toward his goal of a universal preschool system. There is a lot in the $17 billion spending and policy bill that lawmakers and educators say is essential to improving Minnesota schools.

“We could go backwards after a veto,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, or MinnCAN. “If you are somebody that has a policy initiative in the current proposal you have to be a little worried.”

Sellers fought hard to win lawmaker support of a proposal to streamline how Minnesota licenses teachers that’s included in the bill. Sellers and others fear bipartisan deals like that will be lost if lawmakers have to negotiate another education bill.

A veto would lead to a special session and lack of education spending bill by June 30 could mean schools have trouble getting aid payments and state education agencies shut down.

Spending on public schools makes up about 40 percent of the state’s general fund. The legislation passed by the House and Senate Monday includes popular things like $287 million more for school operations, a cap on testing and expansion of a school facilities maintenance program.

The $32 million in new state aid for school upkeep is important to Fred Nolan, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association. For years, rural and suburban school leaders have pushed lawmakers to fix the way school maintenance is funded.

Now, just 25 mostly metro districts can raise taxes for building maintenance without voter support. The bill allows districts to raise local money for facilities that is supplemented by state aid.

“It may get squeezed out by increasing the money for early learning,” Nolan worried.

The bill Dayton plans to dispatch includes $60 million in new funding for preschool. The money is split between public programs and scholarships families can use at programs they chose.

Jim Bartholomew, education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership, said that increase is reason enough for Dayton to sign the bill. Just two years ago, Dayton helped expand and strengthen the state’s preschool scholarship program, he said.

“Vetoing a strong bipartisan education bill that targets early education money to those who need it most is wrong,” Bartholomew said.

But Dayton says with a $1.9 billion budget surplus now is the time to fund universal preschool. He accuses Republican lawmakers of holding his top priority hostage so they can cut taxes.

Dayton wants $550 million in new education spending with $173 million for statewide half-day preschool. He says school districts can phase in the voluntary program.

“This is about four-year-olds and their parents and giving them a better chance in life,” Dayton said Sunday.

ADVOCATES SPLIT

School advocates are split on Dayton’s universal preschool proposal. Many educators see preschool as a good way to close Minnesota’s achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

Research shows preschool narrows the achievement gap, but some studies found the benefits can fade over time.

Enrolling 50,000 new students will be tough logistically because schools will have to add classrooms and staff. Private and nonprofit preschools worry a universal program will hurt their businesses.

Minnesota has one of the nation’s lowest number of 4-year-olds who have access to state-funded preschools. Many states are expanding preschool access, but most use a mix of public, private and nonprofit providers.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said scholarships were a better way to serve the neediest kids and Dayton shouldn’t “unravel” the legislative session by vetoing a bipartisan education bill.

“There are always more needs and wants than dollars to go around,” Nelson said.

Others supported Dayton.

Ann Hobbie, a St. Paul mother and member of Parents United for Public Schools, said she was surprised more DFLers hadn’t joined with Dayton to push for more education spending.

“The current bill doesn’t do enough for kids in the gap,” Hobbie said. “We need to do better for a larger number of vulnerable four-year-olds, as well as for our American Indian children.”

Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, is a big supporter of universal preschool because teachers believe it will improve school readiness. Teachers unions would also likely gain members if Dayton’s universal system becomes law.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said lawmakers should pick money for children over tax breaks.

“We can also give all families access to high-quality preschool, not just a targeted few,” Specht said. “There’s still a huge surplus. If not now, when?”