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Little ones deserve focus, group says

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ST. PAUL - The best way to solve problems in Minnesota schools is to start from the bottom up - with the state's smallest students - the state's teacher union says.

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But that's not all, Education Minnesota President Judy Schaubach said as she called on the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty to fund and repair the state's education system.

"Public education in Minnesota has been neglected for far too long," she said Tuesday.

Legislators applauded the goals Schaubach laid out, which included funding increases for early education, college tuition, special education and teachers.

"All laudable goals," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, who chairs a new House education committee.

The push for all-day, every-day kindergarten received a shove from Shaubach's group. The concept, already instituted by some Minnesota school districts, has received strong support among decision makers in St. Paul, although Republican Pawlenty has bristled at its cost.

Last week he cited a $320 million price tag if all schools were to take on the kindergarten program.

Schaubach didn't have a total cost for her package, but said it's possible that the voluntary kindergarten initiative could be phased in over a period of years.

"Our kids are an investment," and not a cost, she said.

Pawlenty is expected to announce more details today of his priorities during his State of the State speech, and more details will come when he releases his budget next week. Among topics he may address is reform in public high schools, a concept he mentioned during his inaugural address.

Schaubach said the focus should instead be on closing achievement gaps before they manifest by high school age. That, she said, begins with pre-kindergarten education.

"We have to start earlier with our children," Schaubach, a Red Wing resident, said.

That's consistent with what Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, said he has in mind. The Senate education finance committee chairman said he also backs the kindergarten initiative, but warned that issues could arise if lawmakers aren't mindful.

Local districts' facilities could feel a strain, Stumpf said, if they're not allowed adjustment time. Costs also could be cumbersome for the state if only new money state is used; a combination involving local funding is a viable option, he said.

On college tuition, Schaubach said it's time legislators commit to a requirement that says the state must fund two-thirds of the cost of sending a student to college.

"The investment," she said, "would benefit all Minnesotans."

Students from Minnesota state universities and colleges testified Tuesday before a House education committee. Despite the benefits, they said the cost of higher education can lead to immense debt loads.

Murphy, a member of the committee, said that concerns her.

"It's so scary," she said of the resulting effects of student loan debt. "They'll be 50 before they can have children."

Rep. Bud Heidgerken, R-Freeport, said he supports the drive toward all-day, everyday kindergarten as well as other elementary programs.

A Chisago Lakes program aimed at second- and- third-graders has shown results in thinning special education numbers down the line, he said.

But first things first, Heidgerken said.

"We need to get K(indergarten) funded 100 percent," he said.

After hearing college students testify at his education committee meeting Tuesday, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he agrees with recommitting to the two-thirds level for students.

"It's a good proposal," he said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he sees a common message in Education Minnesota's proposal: "Send more money."

As for the kindergarten initiative, he called himself a big supporter and hopes its legislative legs are long.

"It does work," said Hamilton, who said he's witnessed successes of such programs first-hand. "And it's something that we should embrace."

He also agreed with another part of the Schaubach's package - that teachers should receive professional pay.

"They're underfunded," Hamilton said.

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