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A bill with bipartisan support to addresses the long-term economic vitality of Minnesota gets its first hearing today in the Minnesota Senate.
Since it has nothing to do with a Minnesota Vikings stadium, the bill has received little notice. But achieving a better return on the $400 million in public dollars spent annually on early-childhood education would far exceed the benefits of any sport palace.
The business-backed bill eventually would change how the state pays early-education providers by using a voluntary ratings systems and scholarships (vouchers).
Together, the ratings and vouchers are designed to inform and empower low-income parents whose kids constitute the bulk of Minnesota students who not prepared for kindergarten.
Economists say society's highest return on investment is in preparing kids to achieve success through high school.
"We've got good bipartisan sponsorship of the bill in the House and Senate," said Duane Benson, the former Republican lawmaker with a bipartisan bent who heads the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF).
"Minnesota spends about $400 million in state and federal money through a variety of programs and we don't know what we're getting for it, according to studies by the legislative auditor and McKinsey & Co. We've spent five years and about $20 million studying the system, talking to providers, parents and on pilot programs. We think we know what will work."
The MELF bill, sponsored by Sen. Geoff Michel, an Edina Republican, and Sen. Linda Berglin, a Democrat from Minneapolis, eventually would put much of the public money in the hands of qualifying parents who would choose early-age providers who meet uniform standards and practices. Those criteria would be based on MELF research and pilot studies examined by parents, early-age educators and researchers at the University of Minnesota.
The changes could threaten community education programs run though public schools and other institutions that have long gotten state funds. However, at this point neither the education lobby nor other institutions have lined up against the bill. That could change. And some groups will likely request additional funds.
Todd Otis, a Democratic former legislator who heads the advocacy group "Ready 4K," said he supports the MELF legislation, although he would oppose shifting funds from existing community-education programs into a voucher program.
"Minnesota only spends 1 percent of its budget on early learning that is so critical to success in life," Otis said. "We're just grateful that business has shined the light on this critical issue. We've worked with Duane and MELF on this."
About half of Minnesota kids are not prepared to enter school by age 5 or 6, according to education researchers. The disproportionately low-income and minority group kids who fall behind struggle to catch up, despite huge amounts of public money invested in remedial and special education funding in the K-12 years.
Struggling students are also more likely to have higher dropout rates, teen pregnancies and brushes with the law.
'Right thing to do'
"This is the right thing to do for society," Doug Baker, CEO of Ecolab and a board member of MELF said in an interview in December. "You get kids by age 7 who are so far behind ... their odds of success are low. For Minnesota kids and the economy, the clock is ticking."
The $400 million in public spending is on top of the $1.2 billion spent annually by Minnesota parents on early-learning programs.
The rating system is voluntary. However the MELF bill starts to shift existing school-readiness funds toward MELF-recommended reforms. And the $13,000 annual scholarships given to low-income parents who agree to engage with their children in school-readiness training would go to parent-chosen providers who agree to the "parent aware" rating system developed by MELF.
The MELF overhaul is rooted in research by former Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick, now at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and a national evangelist on the tremendous return to society that comes by improving early school-readiness.
Rolnick and colleague Rob Gruenwald, through research and reviewing historical studies, concluded that every $1 invested in high-quality, early-education programs can yield up to $16 through better-performing taxpayers who cost society much less in social service and criminal costs than underperforming students.
"Quality improvement is the first step," Rolnick, also a MELF board member, has said. "Once we improve the quality as it relates to school readiness, this will be one of the very best investments Minnesota taxpayers can make."
MELF advocates say Minnesota must move from a piecemeal, regulation-based system overseen by multiple state agencies that often confuses parents to a voluntary, statewide system focused on school-readiness best practices that will be clear to parents and providers.
The second part of the MELF legislation would create tax credits for donors to the MELF scholarship pool.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Business for Early Learning, a MELF-related group, has collaborated with the Minnesota Department of Education, employers and others to create a website that explains the importance of early learning and includes information for parents of toddlers at: www.isyourchildready.com.
Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • firstname.lastname@example.org