The year we attend to early ed?

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2013 - 7:39 PM

Why it matters, why it's gotten the shaft in the past and why this legislative session could be different.

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If I'd had a déjà vu sensor in my pocket, it would have been buzzing furiously during last Monday's MinneMinds rollout in the State Capitol rotunda.

MinneMinds is a coalition of upwards of 50 organizations asking the Legislature to enable all of the state's low-income 3- and 4-year-olds -- about 20,000 by 2016 -- to attend high-quality preschool. Most of those advocates came to the Capitol with the same mission last year, and the year before that, and more years before that than a columnist past a certain age can reliably recall.

Their persistence is admirable. Their optimism is infectious. They think this could be little learners' year. They may be right.

But the early childhood education issue has become a prime source of frustration among those who hold that Minnesota hasn't been rising to the biggest challenge that confronts it in the first half of this century.

That challenge: How can Minnesota build and keep a brainpower advantage as its population ages and becomes more diverse?

Early ed ought to be a big part of Minnesota's strategy. It has proven its worth in closing the race- and class-based achievement gap that's robbing the state of homegrown talent. Yet programs for small children took a disproportionate share of cuts when the state was in money trouble in 2003. During the brief rise and big fall that followed on state balance sheets, 3- and 4-year-olds did not fare well.

Why not?

• The Legislature isn't quick to adapt to new information. Research findings about brain development prior to age 5 are relatively recent and aren't universally understood. Politicians who "get it" still dither when they think their constituents don't.

• Deficits impede shifts in priorities, especially when there's a lid on taxes. Solving a budget deficit without a tax increase requires spending less on many programs, each of which serves a constituency. It's hard to cut deeper still for the sake of a new priority.

• Deficits have become chronic. Only four times since state taxes were cut in 1999-2000 has the Legislature convened without a deficit it was obliged to close on its agenda. This year is not one of those times.

• Bipartisan budget-setting has been rare. When a majority party tries to pass budget bills without minority votes, the majority's most extreme elements are empowered.

When Republicans held the Capitol's reins in 2011-12, the relatively small GOP faction that maintains that early education is none of the state's business had disproportionate clout. They rejected an expansion of Parent Aware, a quality-rating system that would allow willing preschool providers to be rated, willing parents to know their scores, and attentive state funders to spend preschool money wisely. Funding Parent Aware was the least the 2011 Legislature could have done to satisfy early ed advocates -- and it didn't.

Fortunately, a federal grant and a gubernatorial executive order filled the breach. Parent Aware is on its way to implementation. But money to allow low-income parents to take full advantage of it has yet to materialize.

• Some early ed advocates have a higher priority: no new taxes. Business leaders have been part of the early childhood advocacy coalition since Minnesota Business for Early Learning was founded in 2004. But business backers stress that they want to redirect existing resources rather than raise taxes for this purpose. Probusiness legislators have been left to conclude that early childhood investments would be nice but aren't all that important. (Same goes for transit, higher ed and all the other spending that businesses say they favor provided no taxes are raised.)

Frank Forsberg, vice president of the Greater Twin Cities United Way, chairs the MinneMinds executive committee and shares its confidence that this year could be different.

The MinneMinds coalition is bigger than ever, Forsberg notes. Support from legislators of both parties and Gov. Mark Dayton is stronger than ever.

Fresh findings are circulating from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve's respected research shop showing that preschool beats all-day kindergarten in return on investment. A business-funded pilot project that ended in 2011 proved the value of a voucher approach to funding preschool for kids from low-income families. That's the approach MinneMinds seeks, as it asks taxpayers for $150 million a year when fully phased in. That might sound like a big sum, until one considers that this year the state will spend $7.3 billion on K-12 education.

"We have a cross-sector consensus now that is very different than it was in earlier years," Forsberg said.

That much consensus from a coalition as broad as MinneMinds commands would get a positive response from a rational, functional, forward-looking state government. The early ed issue will test whether that's the kind of government Minnesota has.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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