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House OKs big funding boost for early learning scholarships

The centerpiece of the omnibus early childhood finance bill, passed by the House 71-57 on Thursday, is a large funding increase for the Early Learning Scholarship Program that helps low-income families with young children access programs that prepare them to attend school.

But some believe the increase should be even larger.

Sponsored by Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), HF2292, which now heads to the Senate, would appropriate $300 million in new spending for early education in the upcoming biennium. Originally included in the omnibus children and families finance bill (HF238), the early education provisions were removed by the House Ways and Means Committee at its April 13 hearing and became HF2292.

The largest single appropriation over base budget in the bill is a $265.8 million increase in funding for the scholarships.

During a February hearing on the subject, the House Children and Families Finance and Policy Committee was told the scholarships are one of the best methods to prevent opportunity gaps from opening among children. And Gov. Tim Walz again hailed the investment during his State of the State address Wednesday night.

“This is about giving kids the foundation that they need for success in life,” Pinto said. “… This budget mostly consists of investments in early learning scholarships aimed at the critical earliest months and years for infants and toddlers.”

Rep. Walter Hudson (R-Albertville) said Republicans support the scholarships and wished the bill would “lean more into those” and could not support it.     

At a morning media availability, he said the scholarships are flexible, portable and do more to empower parents by giving them more purchasing power to choose the best child care providers for their kids.

“We want early learning scholarships because we think it addresses the need for child care and early education,” Hudson said. “We want child care to be parent directed.”

He unsuccessfully offered an amendment to raise the income level requirement for a family to receive an early learning scholarship and change other requirements to help make the scholarships more widely available. Pinto said some of the provisions would actually mean many fewer children would be receiving early care and learning.

A delete-all amendment offered by Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) that would have removed some licensing provisions for early learning educators and a “modest increase” to the early learning scholarships, was also not adopted.

Other substantial spending increases in the bill include:

  • $10 million for facilities grants to Head Start agencies to improve and expand services to help additional low-income children;
  • $6 million to develop, continue or expand Grow Your Own programs that work to bring more teachers to the profession;
  • $5.51 million for an early childhood family education aid allowance increase; and
  • $2.52 million to help schools conduct entry assessments to identify the percentage of kindergartners who meet or exceed end-of-year prekindergarten early learning standards.

[MORE: Download the spreadsheet]

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