Minnesota has made historic investments in early learning over the last several years. And through targeted early-learning scholarships, we are beginning to make significant progress on closing our educational achievement gap, one of the largest in the country. Leaders who have demonstrated their commitment to this progress deserve credit, but our work is not done.

Our understanding of what resources are needed to prepare our youngest residents for school continues to evolve. In the coming legislative session, conversations about what additional investments are required almost certainly will again lead to debate over an alternative approach: universal prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds.

There is broad agreement that Minnesota’s educational achievement gap is one of the state’s most critical challenges. However, at the State Capitol in 2015, differences over methods of addressing this challenge produced a sometimes-bitter argument that placed proposals with distinct goals into competition with each other. But pitting the unique needs of children who are born into poverty against the value of preK for all 4-year-olds is not helpful to arriving at an accurate understanding of either proposal.

It isn’t what anyone intended, either. So it is time to reframe the issue.

There may be good reasons to establish universal preK, but closing the achievement gap isn’t one of them. If the achievement gap is the priority that many at the Capitol say it is, then the facts are clear: age 4 is too late for intervention, since brain development with lifelong implications occurs even before birth. We have to start earlier than age 4 for the 20,000 children born into poverty across Minnesota.

Consider that on the White Earth Reservation, in 2014 alone, 44 children were born addicted to drugs or alcohol. How can our educational system — even starting at age 4 — close this gap? We must have an early-childhood system that has health and education components for children born into poverty who need both. We must have one that begins as early as the prenatal period, employing both home visiting nurses and educational and/or community mentors to ensure that basic developmental needs are met.

In this relatively newer space of early-childhood education, other places — from Finland to New York, from Norway to Oklahoma, from England to Florida — have committed to particular responses to similar challenges. We can analyze, consider and discuss them, but realize that right here in Minnesota globally recognized leaders from many sectors have helped to create a system that works. Flexible early-learning scholarships and a quality rating system for early-childhood providers (Parent Aware) have been proven to work for Minnesota’s most vulnerable children. It’s comprehensive, starts early, assures high quality, and is laser-focused on the children and families who need it. Moreover, it can be brought to scale in a cost-effective way. Now is the time to take the next step and provide full resources for that system.

Once Minnesota addresses children born into poverty by fully funding early-learning scholarships that can meet their unique needs from birth, we can more clearly consider the aims of universal preK.

There is an absolute benefit to the targeted-scholarship approach to all children, and the positive impact of closing this gap will accrue to all Minnesotans. Think about what can be achieved in classrooms without the expense and distraction of having a large number of our children starting school unprepared. The benefit to every teacher, every student and every community cannot be overstated. And think about the impact this will have on the quality of our future workforce. Indeed, closing the achievement gap has been shown to be one of the best public investments that any state can make in its economy.

With this issue reframed and clarified, we believe that we will come together around early education in the 2016 legislative session and beyond. By fully investing in the distinct needs of children born into poverty, we’ll know that every young person is at the same starting point — healthy and ready to learn — when they arrive at the schoolhouse door to begin their formal education.

 

Art Rolnick is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Kate Mortenson is an advocate for early-childhood education for kids in poverty. Barb Fabre is director of the child care/early-childhood program on the White Earth Ojibwe Reservation.