Minnesota Department of Education hindered scholarships

  • Article by: RYAN WINKLER and PAT GAROFALO
  • Updated: May 28, 2013 - 8:23 PM

Early learning legislation needs further work next year.

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The two of us are known as legislators unafraid to take clear positions on hot-button issues. Usually we find ourselves on opposite sides of the debate. Today, we write in joint support of early childhood education scholarships. More important, we write to suggest improvements to the recently expanded program.

In 2011, Republican legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton agreed on the creation of early childhood education scholarships. A bill signed into law last week increased scholarship funding from $3 million to $20 million per year. This money is a good start to a financial commitment to our youngest learners.

But simply spending money without a good plan fails to serve kids, parents or taxpayers very well.

As originally designed, the early childhood scholarships put money into parents’ hands to choose any child-care or preschool program. A Parent Aware rating system gave parents an easy-to-understand metric of effectiveness. The scholarships provided the financial incentive, and the ratings system provided the accountability. Higher quality, improved accountability and better learning — these are outcomes on which all of Minnesota can agree.

Enacting and expanding this proposal resulted from years of coalition-building between advocates for children, business leaders and experts in early learning. It passed the Legislature with the support of leaders from throughout Minnesota and required courage from both political parties. Democrats feared embracing a scholarship model, which looked like school vouchers to some. Republicans were concerned about the cost of launching an expensive government program. In the end, both parties put the goals of quality, accountability and learning ahead of their ideological doubts.

Unfortunately, in the last few days of the legislative session, the Minnesota Department of Education insisted on a narrow approach to early childhood scholarships. In closed-door negotiations, the state agency’s will prevailed.

First, the department mandated a cap on scholarships of $5,000. This arbitrary cap hurts the kids who have the greatest need and whose families have the fewest resources. A scholarship of $5,000 will enable a child to attend high-quality child care from about January to May. Minnesotans deserve a program focused on full-time excellence, not part-time mediocrity. The department’s mandated cap pushes our state toward mediocrity.

Second, the department senselessly restricted access to the program for underserved parts of the state. The original early childhood scholarships bill created incentives to expand high-quality child care in Greater Minnesota. Child-care providers could qualify for scholarships for a limited time if they committed to getting rated in the Parent Aware program. Scholarships also could be awarded to providers rated with one or two stars (out of four possible), though only the top-rated providers would receive the full scholarship amount. The point was to expand the public- and private-sector availability of high-quality child care, whether in the private sector, in the home or run by the government.

Again, due to last-minute changes insisted upon by the Department of Education, the provisions that created more high-quality early education providers are gone. This will especially hurt kids in rural areas of Minnesota. The department’s actions suggest protectionism for existing, government-run programs and a bias against private-sector providers. With the vast majority of Minnesota’s kids served by private-sector child-care providers, a public-sector-only approach will leave most kids behind.

We agree that delivering high-quality early education is a very promising opportunity. We also agree that the Minnesota Department of Education is responsible for the shortcomings in the program enacted in 2013. We will come back to this issue in 2014, and in the years ahead, to fix these problems.

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Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, and Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, are members of the Minnesota House.

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