Consider the plight of the Minnesota snowbird, stuck in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico (all that boring 85-degree sunshine!) and fretting about whether the 2016 Legislature will do the right thing with the state’s budget surplus — that is, invest in early childhood education.

I was only too happy to take Robert Bruininks’ call. And to report that at that moment, the Minneapolis temperature was 3 below.

What I could not tell the University of Minnesota president emeritus was how much of the $1.2 billion that’s currently in legislative play could wind up benefiting little learners. The Legislature’s late start this year lets state pols hold their cards close to their vests — and the free-falling Dow Jones industrial average has some of them increasingly cautious about more spending.

“I really hope they put some additional money into early education,” Bruininks said. “They’ve simply got to keep investing in the early years.”

Bruininks’ zeal for the topic is good news. He could be just the thing the early ed rivals of 2015 need to become early ed allies in 2016 — a sage, nonpartisan policy broker with decades of educational expertise to bring to bear. When he’s back in the cold in a few weeks, he could be an important advocate for early education policies that help Minnesota continue to be the Brainpower State as its population evolves.

Before he was president of the University of Minnesota, Bruininks was a university professor of educational psychology and dean of the College of Education and Human Development. While he was president from 2002 to 2011, he trucked and tangled with governors and legislators and gained appreciation for their power to shape this state.

That background made Bruininks a keen observer of one of the big tussles of the 2015 legislative session. This one wasn’t DFL vs. Republican or metro vs. rural. It was preschool scholarships for needy children vs. school-based preschool for every 4-year-old in the state.

It took a June special session to settle their quarrel. Bruininks applauded that result, as far as it went. The Legislature put roughly $100 million more over two years into existing early learning programs. The biggest boost, $55 million, went to needs-based scholarships, but $33 million more was also provided for grants to school districts that choose to start or expand preschool programs. Those programs are typically available at no cost to low-income families and at a fee for others.

Minnesota was right to opt for both approaches, Bruininks said, and right to stick with means tests that spend the most on the neediest kids.

“These two strategies produce different outcomes, and you want them both. With scholarships, you have parents exercising decisions about where to invest money. That empowers parents to take charge of the education of their kids early in their lives. It’s a lasting benefit. It gives them confidence that they can keep up that level of engagement … .

“School-based programs for 4-year-olds provide something other programs can’t — alignment with kindergarten and the early grades. That alignment is very important in a child’s life.”

The state’s Early Learning Scholarship Program received encouraging affirmation last week. An evaluation issued by the state Department of Education said the scholarships, now up to $7,500 per child per year, are “meeting their intended outcomes,” including boosting children’s readiness for kindergarten and “connecting families with the programs of their choice.”

The one caveat: Early Learning Scholarships are expected to reach 5,700 children this school year — just 11 percent of eligible 3- and 4-year-olds in Minnesota. That’s too few.

Meanwhile, new attention is being paid to infants and toddlers who spend much of their days in child care centers and licensed family day care homes. Changes in regulations governing federal child care subsidies for low-income families are pushing the state to eliminate an embarrassingly long waiting list for those subsidies and to pay providers enough to give families more choices. The quality of programs for the youngest children will be in for increasing scrutiny as a result.

That’s as it should be, Bruininks said. The state’s future prosperity depends on it.

“I believe deeply that there are two things that will drive the economy and our quality of life going forward. It will be the extent to which we build human capital and the extent to which we invest in and support a culture of innovation. A coherent early education strategy is key to both of those things… .

“The focus has to be on the lower-income kids. That’s where the biggest payoff is. If we don’t do that, we’re going to have a growing underclass, an underperforming economy and a government that can’t pay for all the things we want it to do.” Stick with means-testing of early education to keep it affordable for taxpayers, he counsels — but don’t be so stingy that needy kids are underserved.

While he was still president of the university and state money was scarce, Bruininks was once asked by a legislator what he would do if an unclaimed tax dollar suddenly appeared — direct it to the University of Minnesota or to early education?

“I said I’d put it in early childhood education,” he related. “Universities can raise money in many ways. Kids can’t.”

Intellectual honesty like that has given Bruininks potent credibility. Hurry home, Mr. President Emeritus. The Legislature reconvenes on March 8.


Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at