Late last week, the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board voted to reallocate $1.5 million to fund a free, all-day kindergarten program for the upcoming school year.
However, at least two board members are concerned that the district will not have the financial resources to keep the program going long-term.
A third of the total cost for all-day kindergarten will come from cost savings and “restructuring” of other programs, but the vast majority will be paid through a single fund—compensatory aid—which is state money dedicated to meet the needs of pupils who are lagging behind. The funds are tied to the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. The district will funnel $1 million from compensatory aid to the all-day kindergarten program.
While both Board Directors Paula Teiken and Jim Schmid fully supported all-day kindergarten, the two feared that the proposed plan was too reliant on a single monetary source, which could make the kindergarten program vulnerable to the whims of St. Paul.
“Any time the legislature could choose to cut it, and it could go away. My hope would be that we could cross fund it,” Teiken said. “I sincerely fear what may happen when we get to our budget in a year when we know we have cuts coming. I prefer not to be blindsided by increased costs.”
The two also argued that siphoning off compensatory funds could deprive older students of services they need: Remedial programs, teachers aids that provide individual help and anti-truancy efforts which could be cut or reorganized to provide funds for the kindergarten program.
"I just can't see cutting that much out of one through 12 for a single grade," Schmid said.
On Friday, when asked how long the district planned to offer the service, Superintendent Randy Clegg answered indirectly.
"We've stepped off the curb. This is a long-term commitment," Clegg said. "This is our top priority."
This is not the first time District 191 has initiated an all-day kindergarten program. The district offered all-day kindergarten during the 2003-2004 school year, but Clegg said it was unable to sustain the effort for more than one year.
After 2004, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage reverted to its previous model: Free half-day kindergarten classes coupled with a fee-based all-day program. Under that system, all-day kindergarten does not come cheap. Over the 2011-2012 school year, the district charged $300 a month for all-day kindergarten, though there was a sliding scale for families who couldn't pay for the service.
By Clegg's estimation, the district can no longer afford such limited access to early childhood education. Over the last 10 years, poverty in the district has grown, bringing with it an increasing achievement gap between the haves and have-nots. According to enrollment figures released last November, the number of elementary students qualifying for free and reduced lunch more than doubled in the eight-year span between 2002 to 2012, rising from 21 percent to 47 percent of the student body.
"Academically, this is the right thing to do, to give them all a good solid start," Clegg said. "And from an economic perspective, by investing early on we are anticipating that we will reduce costs for remedial services. You can spend lots of money on alternative high schools, remediation and after school programs, but the longer you wait the harder it is to close those learning gaps."
The demographic shift has also added to the district's coffers. Clegg said the district is now able to finance all-day kindergarten largely because of an influx of additional compensatory aid. In the upcoming year, ISD 191 will receive $1 million more in compensatory aid than the district originally forecast.
The windfall convinced Board Director Dan Luth that funding all-day kindergarten was feasible. Luth opposed previous attempts to institute all-day kindergarten on the grounds that the district did not have the financial resources to support the program over the long haul.
This time around, Luth unequivocally threw his support behind the measure.
“I have peeled back the layers and using compensatory funds is the most sustainable way. Pulling funds from other places will bring more instability,” Luth said. “We’re not getting more funds because the legislature decided to up the ante. We’re getting more funds because the nature of our student population has allowed us more and that’s pretty unlikely to change also in the foreseeable future.”
Ultimately, the rest of the board agreed. The measure passed unanimously.
Right now, the State of Minnesota does not provide funding for universal, all-day kindergarten, though a growing number of states have instituted such programs, including both Iowa and Wisconsin. However, Clegg said the issue comes up almost every year at the state legislature. During the last session, the DFL introduced three separate house bills that dealt explicitly with the all-day kindergarten. None made it out of committee.
"Many states are starting four-year-old programming. Minnesota is really behind the curve," Clegg said. "It's really become up to the district to figure out how to do this. It's not easy work."