The Minnesota Legislature has been debating early education for many years. Our leaders have made good preliminary progress, but we still have 40,000 low-income Minnesota children under age 5 who can’t afford quality early learning programs, and these are the children who are most likely to fall into Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps. Those kids urgently need help.
This year, Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed adding $175 million per biennium for early education. At that level of investment, Minnesota could make serious progress in preventing, narrowing and closing our achievement gaps. As he has for the past six years, the governor is showing bold leadership on this issue.
The problem is, the recommended part-day universal pre-K (UPK) investment strategy is not aligned with what the research says we need to close achievement gaps.
Research done by economists like Art Rolnick, Rob Grunewald and the Nobel Prize-winning James Heckman finds that we must target our limited resources to the low-income children who currently can’t access quality early education, and are most likely to fall into achievement gaps. Research also says that those most at-risk kids need multiple years of up to full-day, full-year early learning programming to be ready for kindergarten and all that follows.
Unfortunately, the well-intentioned part-day UPK model doesn’t do those things, while the Early Learning Scholarship model does. UPK may make sense at some time in the future, after all of Minnesota’s low-income children under age 5 are being fully served. But in 2017, the most vulnerable children must come first before wealthier families served by UPK.
Dayton helped bring the scholarship model statewide, and this year House Republicans, led by Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) and Education Finance Committee Chair Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), have wisely proposed to increase funding for flexible scholarships by $24 million per biennium.
The scholarship investment strategy being championed by Republican House leaders and others, with support from many DFL legislators and the 100-organization MinneMinds coalition of nonprofits, was designed by the nonpartisan Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) specifically to address achievement gaps, so it is consistent with the research we mentioned earlier. That is, scholarships target resources to low-income children, provide multiple years of exposure to high quality programs, and offer working parents a full-day, full-year option.
So, what if Minnesota struck a bipartisan compromise on early education? What if we took $125 million per biennium — a bit less than what the governor is proposing, and a bit more than what the House proposes — and funded the research-based scholarship model that both Republicans and Dayton have in the past championed?
While $175 million for part-day UPK would only help about a quarter of Minnesota’s 4-year olds, $125 million for targeted scholarships would fund all low-income 3- and 4-year olds estimated to be on waiting lists.
While $175 million for part-day UPK would only provide nine months of early education programming, $125 million for scholarships would offer up to two years of early education for the children who are furthest behind.
While $175 million for part-day UPK would only provide 2- to 3-hours per day of learning help, $125 million for scholarships would provide up to full-day, full-year options for at-risk kids, and also fit with their parents’ full-time work schedules when needed.
If we did that, the Legislature and governor could decide what to do with the $50 million that is saved by funding $125 million for scholarships instead of $175 million for part-day UPK. Maybe state leaders would decide to use that $50 million to address other early learning needs, such as scholarships for high-risk toddlers and infants who are homeless, abused or in foster care. Maybe state leaders would expand home visiting. Or maybe they could use that money to address other worthy priorities.
The point is, spending $125 million for scholarships would do much more to address Minnesota’s achievement gap problem than spending $175 million on a part-day UPK model that would ultimately divert about $700 million per biennium in limited state resources from our most at-risk kids. It would transform the lives of thousands of vulnerable children, and show an increasingly partisan world that Minnesotans still know how to strike bipartisan compromises.
So, why not combine the best of the DFL governor’s approach with the best of the Republican House leaders’ approach, and do something truly historic this year to help the Minnesota kids who need early learning assistance the most?
Douglas M. Baker is CEO of Ecolab Inc. and a leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership. Michael V. Ciresi is a founding partner of the law firm Ciresi Conlin LLP. Both have served as board members of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation and Close Gaps by 5.