For about 13 years, the two of us have been working together on the issue of early learning. Beginning in 2006, we were part of a group of business and civic leaders that raised $20 million to research, pilot and evaluate an effective approach — Early Learning Scholarships coupled with Parent Aware quality improvement coaching and grants. Most recently, we have been working to bring that proven approach statewide.
We’ve had some notable success. But 35,000 low-income children under age 5 still can’t access quality early-learning programs using kindergarten-readiness best practices. That enormous early-learning opportunity gap contributes heavily to Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps.
In recent years, a primary sticking point in the policy debate at the State Capitol has been this: Should Minnesota leaders prioritize funding for those 35,000 left-behind, low-income infants, toddlers and preschoolers, or should we help all 4-year-old children of all incomes, as proposed in the Universal Pre-K (UPK) approach, called Voluntary Pre-K in Minnesota.
We two authors of this commentary agree on the paramount importance of investing in early learning, but we have somewhat different viewpoints about income targeting.
One of us is an economist, whose research finds that every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early-learning programs yields up to $16 in societal benefits. This is primarily due to lower taxpayer costs for things like special education, social services, income supports, health care, law enforcement and prisons.
The economist further advises that investing in wealthier families who can already afford early-learning programs, as UPK does, yields little to no return-on-investment (ROI) for taxpayers. Conclusion: We should invest limited state funds to help low-income families, where we can benefit from that amazing 16-to-1 ROI.
The other author agrees that low-income children should be the top priority but also emphasizes that middle-class families are struggling mightily to pay for quality child care. He’s mindful that Minnesota is the nation’s third-most-expensive state for child care, with statewide average costs in centers ranging from $12,000 to $16,000 depending on the age of the child. For this reason, he believes middle-income families need help, too.
The authors’ friendly disagreement mirrors the disagreement that has played out in the Capitol over the last several years, where some Minnesota leaders favor aid to all families, while others favor prioritizing aid to low-income families.
The two of us have found a compromise that we both can accept, and perhaps it is a compromise state leaders could also agree on.
Between the “low-income kids first” and “universal pre-K” (UPK) positions, there is middle ground we call “universal access.” Setting a goal of “universal access” means that Minnesota is going to help both the families who can’t access early-learning programs and the families who struggle to access them, and do it in priority order.
To be a bit more specific, we propose that Minnesota head down a path to universal access that looks like this: Our first funding priority would be low-income children under age 5 in families with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines (FPG). Then, after those most vulnerable children are helped, we would next implement partial scholarships for middle-income families.
Making universal access the goal for children under age 5, instead of UPK for 4-year-old children only, is more aligned with what the research says is needed to help prevent and close achievement gaps. That is, it starts much earlier in life than UPK and is better targeted to the children most likely to fall into achievement gaps.
Some wish child care weren’t in such high demand. But like it or not, 75 percent of children under age 6 live in homes where parents are working, sometimes because federal social services laws require it. That’s not going to change any time soon, so we can’t wish that need away.
With the leadership of Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan and bipartisan members of the Legislature, Minnesota can become the first state able to say that we offer universal access to early-learning programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. This will help address our achievement gaps, help Minnesota to retain and attract the best employers in the global economy and develop the kind of neighbors, citizens, workers and taxpayers we need to thrive into the future.
It’s time to put the bickering aside and reach a bipartisan compromise on early education. The compromise should be that Minnesota is committing to pursuing a path to universal access to high-quality early-learning programs for all children under age 5.
Michael Ciresi is a founding partner at the law firm of Ciresi Conlin. Art Rolnick is an economist at the University of Minnesota, formerly with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Both serve on the board of the nonprofit organization Close Gaps by 5 (closegapsby5.org).