Inside Track: Early learning supporter asks what team is House GOP on?

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Duane Benson

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Duane Benson, a Minnesota farmer who served as a popular Republican state senator, business lobbyist and, until last year, director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), is miffed with hard-right conservatives within the majority Republican caucus in the Minnesota House.

"Put a jersey on these guys so we can tell what team they're on," said an irritated Benson. "I thought they wanted value for tax dollars."

MELF spent several years and $20 million in private dollars, overseen by business backers, early-education specialists from the University of Minnesota and preschool providers, to develop "Parent Aware," a rating system for preschools. The system included education for providers to achieve best-practice standards and a good rating. The idea is to get more value from the same $400 million in government subsidies for preschool education in Minnesota.

Economists at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank have estimated that the best public investment we can make is getting kids ready for kindergarten. It's estimated that half of Minnesota's kids struggle from the get-go, have a higher high school dropout rate and get in trouble, and that leads to millions in public costs.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the minority DFL caucus, which has embraced the business-backed preschool reforms, is trying to get $2 million in scholarship money through the Legislature that would go as $4,000 scholarships for low-income kids to Parent Aware-rated providers.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, a Republican, last week effectively untied the money from the Parent Aware rating system with amendments that passed the House along partisan lines that would allow the subsidy to also go to unrated, in-home or other providers. A related bill is moving through the Senate with bipartisan support

House Speaker Kurt Zellers did not respond last week to inquiries about whether the top Republican supports the business-backed early-learning reforms. Some of the conservative opponents have argued that the MELF reforms only further the "nanny state" and prefer home-based preschool.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Minnesota Business Partnership, MELF -- now called Parent Aware for School Readiness -- all support the initiative.

"Just as road contractors who accept state transportation funding are expected to adopt quality standards to ensure wise use of tax dollars, child care providers who accept state funding must be expected to adopt early learning quality standards to ensure wise use of tax dollars," said Ericca Maas of Parent Aware. "Taxpayers don't want their tax dollars paying for substandard roads, or substandard child care."

POWER PLANT POLITICS

We can probably live without $25 million in state help to renovate the Nicollet Mall or to help build a new Saints ballpark in St. Paul, to the chagrin of the Minneapolis-area and St. Paul-area chambers of commerce. Still, University of Minnesota officials are upset by deletion from the Legislature's bonding bill of $54 million for replacement of the ancient coal-fired power plant on the Mississippi River. The plan was to install a cleaner, more-efficient gas-fired plant that would heat and power the U at big energy and pollution savings.

Gov. Dayton proposed a larger, job-creating bonding bill than the Republicans, who prefer business tax cuts, are willing to approve. This was the top priority among the $169.5 million requested by U President Erik Kaler, an engineer, who worries that the old plant can't cover "163 buildings and protect hundreds of millions of dollars of the state's most-advanced research activities."

Fred Zimmerman, retired industrialist and manufacturing professor at the University of St. Thomas, said he favors the economic and environmental gains of replacing antiquated plants, but suspects the University of Minnesota could boil down the cost. The U said its capital-repair budget creates 4,000 jobs.

The Republican majority in both houses, in cutting Dayton's request, favored capital projects in Republican strongholds in outstate Minnesota, with exception of DFL-stronghold Duluth. U of M officials hope to get the project reinstated during end-of-the-session horse trading.

LEONARD STREET SCHOLARS

Hats off to Leonard, Street and Deinard, which invested $1.3 million in minority scholarships at the four Twin Cities-area law schools over the past decade.

Leonard Street is among the law firms committed to increasing the number of minority lawyers above the 7 percent now in private practice and 13 percent in government service. The firm's scholars are working in law firms, business, government and legal-services agencies for the poor. The scholarships have produced 41 lawyers and scholars including:

•Adine Momoh, a third-year business associate practicing business litigation at Leonard, Street and Deinard.

•Daniel Garcia, currently working as a prosecutor for Cook County in Illinois.

•Sharifa Tharpe, a second-year law student at the University of Minnesota Law School who plans to work in employment law.

Justice Alan Page of the Minnesota Supreme Court spoke to a group of the scholars and others at a reception last week at Leonard Street.

SHORT TAKES

Chuck Thorpe, assistant director for advanced manufacturing and robotics at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is the federal point man in the booming area of robotics, from manufacturing to surveillance drones. Thorpe, who headed the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon in robotics-hotbed Pittsburgh for more than 30 years, will speak on April 11 at 7:30 a.m. at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Cowles Auditorium in a dialogue sponsored by the Minnesota High Tech Association and its fast-growing sister association, Robotics Alley. More info at www.roboticsalley.org.

•Blue Cross and Blue Shield has been hiring at Iron Range facilities in Virginia and Aurora, according to Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) boss Tony Sertich. That includes 30 jobs at the decade-old facilities that employ 400-plus workers. Blue Cross also has updated technology and training.

Sertich and a couple of aides drove to Eagan last year to pay a call on Blue Cross brass and inquire about Iron Range expansion.

"This may be the least expensive deal we've ever done," said Sertich, who said there was no financial incentive. "For the cost of a tank of gas, there are more jobs in the region. We are thankful ...." The IRRRB is a state economic development agency.

• Window-maker Andersen Corp. is encouraging homeowners to familiarize themselves with ways to help prevent window-related accidents, as we've had some kids harmed recently. Andersen is introducing updated materials and tips to help educate consumers in its LookOut for Kids window safety program.

"Windows and doors do more than provide views, sunlight and breezes; they can provide an important path to escaping a fire or emergency. Yet left open, they can be a potential hazard," said Andersen's safety expert Shawn Aherns. More information at www.andersenwindows.com/safety.

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