State lawmakers aren’t through squabbling about how best to bring more Minnesotans the benefits of high-quality early childhood education, or how much to spend in that effort.
But a hopeful sign appeared at the Legislature last week that pointed toward a much-to-be-desired consensus. It was a signal that increasingly, DFLers and Republicans agree that children from low-income families should have first claim on public early-ed dollars, and that those funds should be spent on high-quality preschool experiences with a proven record of adequately preparing at-risk children for kindergarten.
The evidence lies in the bipartisan and bicameral support for combining a number of the state’s early childhood funding streams into one Early Education Access Fund, under a single director’s administration. Money from that combined fund would flow exclusively to preschool and child-care programs that employ kindergarten readiness best practices, as defined by Minnesota’s Parent Aware early education rating system.
The funds the bill would combine initially include Head Start, School Readiness, competitive state grants for pre-K programs in public schools, and early learning scholarships for low-income families. Together, they represent $236 million in the current biennial budget.
Potentially more significant: The bill would also initiate a study that could lead to inclusion of one other program — basic sliding fee child-care assistance. That’s an additional $100 million in state funds in the current budget. Like the scholarships, it supports low-income children, but it reaches children at more ages and in more settings than scholarships do, and has comparatively little connection to measures of kindergarten readiness.
The child care assistance program has also been chronically underfunded, leading to a waiting list of more than 5,000 families as of December 2016 who could qualify for subsidies but not access them due to insufficient state funds. That underfunding is in turn seen as a key contributor to a shortage of licensed child-care providers in Greater Minnesota that emerged in recent years.
Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking a major boost in child care assistance funds through mid-2019. In contrast, the advocacy organization Close Gaps by 5 is seeking $105 million more for early learning scholarships. A boost for both is warranted — but so is the better coordination and emphasis on quality that the Early Education Access Fund promises to bring.
Better assurance is needed that public dollars are reaching as many income-eligible families as possible with the kind of support that’s most likely to boost kindergarten readiness among the most at-risk children. In addition, more and better-targeted incentives are needed for child-care providers in all settings to offer children proven early learning experiences.
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, the House sponsor of the Early Education Access Fund bill, said lawmakers are increasingly aware that 50 years of sporadic government efforts to improve early learning have created a confusing programmatic hodgepodge. Similarly situated families around the state can receive widely varying support, and legislators are left with the sense that “we’re not serving as many kids as we could with the money we have.”
Other legislators who have signed on to the call for a coordinated fund include former DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen, Rochester Republican Sen. Carla Nelson and Edina DFL Sen. Melisa Franzen. That strong lineup shows that legislators understand early education’s potential to close the state’s persistent achievement gap and sustain this state’s best economic asset, its well-educated workforce.
It’s sometimes said that state government’s fundamental mission is setting the table for the next generation’s economic well-being. That makes getting early education right one of the Legislature’s most important tasks.