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Smith talks early childhood education at Harrison Elementary

Minnesota Lt. Governor Tina Smith laughs with educators Monday at Harrison Elementary School. Smith hosted an all-day kindergarten roundtable at the school about the powerful impact of all-day kindergarten. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith held a roundtable on universal kindergarten and pre-k Monday at Harrison Elementary School in Brainerd, ahead of another push for the state to fund pre-k next year.

Through a grant, Harrison was able to implement universal kindergarten a decade before the state as a whole did. This year also saw the debut of pilot all-day pre-k programs in several locations in the Brainerd district.

Smith quizzed educators at the roundtable on how the program had helped prepare kids for first grade, and how pre-k would help kids prepare for kindergarten.

Teachers from across the district got up to extoll the virtues of all-day full-week kindergarten, saying that having kids attend class the entire school week rather than every other day helped prepare them better and gave more consistency to their education. Increasing the time students spent at pre-k and kindergarten not only helped them understand the curriculum itself, such as the alphabet and reading, but it also helped them nail down simple organizational tasks like lining up for activities, they said.

Universal pre-k sparked a heated battle at the state capitol earlier this year when Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a finance bill that didn't include funding to create the new initiative statewide, thereby forcing the Legislature into a special session. The compromise Dayton eventually worked out with legislative leaders didn't include funding for universal pre-k, but the administration may try again during the 2016 legislative session.

During a press conference after the roundtable, Smith commented in response to a concern from educators that if universal pre-k was implemented by the state, the funding would eventually lapse and the district would be left with an unfunded mandate.

"Today what we heard is how important it is for the school districts to understand that they've got a long-term partnership with the state," she said. "We heard that they think voluntary preschool for every child is the right direction to go, they just need to make sure that the financial partnership with the state is there for the long term."

Smith also responded to a critique of the universal pre-k idea that came up during the debate on the issue earlier this year: that public preschool increases would take business away from daycare and child care providers.

"We're not talking about mandatory preschool, we're not saying that you must send your four-year-old to a preschool and a public school, everybody has choices," she said. "What we want to just make sure of is, that there is an option for everybody if you can't afford to go to preschool."

Smith addresses County Veterans Service Officers

In the evening, Smith gave brief remarks during a gathering of County Veterans Service Officers at Grand View Lodge in Nisswa. Smith described the state's long tradition of military service, saying Minnesotan soldiers had followed the example of the famed First Minnesota Regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. An unusually large percentage of Minnesotans serve, she said, and veterans service officers help support them after they get back. Smith thanked the CVSOs for their work, and highlighted how she and Dayton had worked to increase state CVSO grants.

ZACH KAYSER may be reached at 218-855-5860 or Zach.Kayser@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ZWKayser.

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