Leaders learning valuable lessons about kindergarten

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2005 - 10:00 PM

Interest among business leaders in ensuring that every Minnesota kid is ready for kindergarten is gaining traction, judging from the turnout at this month's Minnesota Business Forum on School Readiness.

Nearly 200 company representatives learned that about 80 percent of the $1.5 billion spent on preschool and other early-childhood programs is paid by Minnesota parents, according to the research firm McKinsey & Co. The government paid nearly $340 million to fund early-age education programs, including Head Start.

Duane Benson, the former Republican state senator and business lobbyist, and Barbara Yates, a veteran state education official, have been hired to run the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, funded with $2.5 million from the state, Cargill Inc. and the McKnight Foundation.

The foundation will seek cost-effective ways to reach families through existing or new programs. The foundation was spawned by the 200-member Minnesota Business for Early Learning (MnBEL) headed by H.B. Fuller CEO Al Stroucken.

Data collected by the Minnesota Department of Education indicate that about 50 percent of Minnesota 5-year-olds, or about 30,000 of the kids who show up for kindergarten each year, don't have the learning skills or maturity they need. Most of them come from low-income, immigrant or distressed households where learning might not be a priority.

This has emerged as a business issue because these kids will be part of the future workforce. And studies indicate that kids who get off on the wrong foot in school are most likely to drop out of high school, underperform economically and drive up public costs as teens and adults.

Researchers at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank have concluded that investing in preparing kids for school yields about a 16 percent annual return when the higher taxes paid by educated people and their lower impact on public costs are considered.

The state spends about 40 percent of its budget on primary and secondary education, but less than 1 percent on preschool education. At-home moms used to make this happen for many kids. But a 2004 study found that most moms are working and that kindergarten standards are higher than 40 years ago.

The business folks have held off seeking more state money until the learning foundation makes its recommendations. Supporters have talked of a public-private endowment that would award scholarships and promote the benefits of early learning.

Because of budget restraints imposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Legislature, Minnesota's investment in early learning is lower than it was five years ago.

Taylor Corp. of Mankato, which set up day care and early-learning programs in the 1970s as a way to attract and retain workers, long has been lauded as a model employer in this area.

Former Gov. Al Quie, a Republican and an honorary co-chairman of MnBEL, said business must get more involved in work-site day care to satisfy working families and the need to reach more at-risk kids.

"We've got to get this one right," said Todd Otis, CEO of Ready 4 K, an advocacy group for early-age education that recruited business involvement.

Medtronic Inc. and Madelia Community Hospital were named "child-friendly" employers of the year by a panel of MnBEL judges. For more information, go to: www.mnbel.org or www.ready4k.org.

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