At risk is a proven way to close the state's achievement gap.
The new third-grade test scores in Bloomington are so impressive that they were discussed at high levels of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank last week. Third-grade alumni of a 2005 federally funded preschool reading program, all of them low-income students of color, very nearly matched the reading and math proficiency attainment of the district's students as a whole.
The same results showed that the usual "achievement gap" stubbornly persisted between middle-class, majority-race children and poor, minority-race children who were not among the 90 participants in the 2005 preschool, said Tom Holton, executive director of community education for Bloomington and Richfield public schools. But among the third-graders who were exposed to a high-quality preschool curriculum as 4-year-olds, the gap disappeared.
"We know what works" to improve learning and lifetime success, Holton said he told Fed senior vice president Art Rolnick, whose research has made him a leading advocate for quality preschool for at-risk kids. "We know how to do it and when to do it. We just need the political will to provide the funding to make it happen."
Sadly, that kind of will hasn't been exhibited lately at the State Capitol. Rather than looking for ways to extend the benefits of quality preschool to more impoverished children, lawmakers this year have been considering cuts in funding for licensed child care -- the places where a majority of Minnesota's low-income children receive their only exposure to preschool lessons.
As part of his plan to balance the state budget, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed to cut $12 million from state support for at-risk preschoolers, shaving the rates the state pays to licensed child-care providers for enrolling low-income children and also the sliding-fee subsidies for working-poor families.
That may not sound like much. But for child-care providers, it represents a 5 percent cut in rates that have been frozen since 2001. That long-lasting freeze has taken a toll on the availability of licensed child care for poor children (see box.)
Pawlenty's proposal would mean that 900 fewer low-income families would qualify for child-care subsidies in the coming year and that 800 families would be charged higher co-payments, according to a coalition of early education advocates. That's not to mention the 6,000 families who are eligible for the subsidies now but are on a waiting list to receive them.
For Minnesota's future prosperity and competitive position among the states, Pawlenty's proposal goes in the wrong direction.
Minnesota ranks 38th among the 38 states that provide state funding for preschool programs, reported Arthur Reynolds of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota at last week's "Minnesota's Future" forum at the Humphrey Institute.
It stands to reason, he said, that an achievement gap between Minnesota's middle-class and poor children is in evidence among kindergartners and persists through subsequent years of schooling. Statewide, 73 percent of Minnesota teens graduate from high school in four years; among low-income teens, the four-year grad rate is 52 percent.
Reynolds reported one other research finding that state lawmakers should note: Among various remedies for the achievement gap that have been scientifically examined, none has shown a more positive benefit-to-cost ratio than quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. All-day kindergarten doesn't come close.
Minnesota House leaders say they won't go as far as Pawlenty with permanent cuts. But the House's proposal eliminates $7.5 million in one-time funding that was set for reallocation to counties with the longest waiting lists for child-care help. The Senate has yet to reveal its early childhood intentions.
House leaders deserve a nod for sparing child-care providers from cuts that would have pushed more to close their doors to poor children -- and some to close their doors for good. But the legislators who are supposed to be stewards of this state's future are a long way from absorbing the message that results like those in Bloomington convey, and acting on it.