This week, a diverse coalition of Minnesota groups expressed support for a "MinneMinds" initiative to invest a large sum of public money in prekindergarten early education. As fiscal conservatives, we would have reluctantly opposed the proposal a year or two ago. Today, we support the general approach.

What made the difference for us, and for many others in the business community? The Parent Aware Ratings now being implemented across Minnesota.

The ratings bring accountability. Child-care and early education providers who volunteer to get a Parent Aware Rating must prove to taxpayers and parents that they are using the best practices for preparing children for kindergarten. For instance, these child-care providers have to show that they are using teacher training, curriculums, materials and methods of proven value.

Hundreds of Minnesota providers have already volunteered to get Parent Aware Ratings, and 92 percent of them told evaluators that the process has indeed improved the quality of early education. Best of all, children in Parent Aware-rated settings showed significant progress on key kindergarten-readiness measures, such as vocabulary, phonics, social skills and print knowledge.

We now know that the Parent Aware Ratings work. This is not another "trust us" proposition. The private sector raised $20 million and spent several years evaluating the ratings in pilot communities. Now we have proof.

The quality assurances provided by Parent Aware are critical to fiscal conservatives like us. Many Minnesotans have heard the oft-cited statistic that economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis have found that every dollar invested in moving low-income children off of waiting lists and into high-quality early education yields $16 in societal benefits. That's an impressive finding. But the investment must be in high-quality programs. Investing in low quality not only doesn't bring the vaunted 16-to-1 return, there is evidence that it actually can set children back.

That's why we and others in the business community have opposed spending more tax dollars on child care until the Parent Aware Ratings were adopted. We didn't want to be wasting tax dollars.

We're pleased to report that the MinneMinds scholarships that were recently proposed could be used only by providers participating in Parent Aware. That makes all the difference for us.

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators of both parties should embrace this initiative. In fact, they should take it a step further by requiring that existing state funding for child care be available only to Parent Aware-rated providers.

The business community -- including those in the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, and many Minnesota CEOs -- understands the importance of investing in high-quality early education. Its members know that up to 90 percent of brain development happens by age 5. They are concerned that nearly half of Minnesota children are arriving in kindergarten unprepared and that too many never catch up. They can see what a tragedy that is for those kids, for taxpayers and for Minnesota employers who desperately need educated workers to compete in the global marketplace.

With Parent Aware in place, many of those business leaders are ready to step up and support investment in high-quality child care and early education. We realize that there are a lot of worthy programs out there looking for public money, and that Minnesota's fiscal situation remains difficult. But we also know no other program offers taxpayers a 16-to-1 return on investment, and that no other program has instituted a rigorous set of proven reforms to ensure that the public investment is spent only where best practices are in use.

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Warren Staley is a former CEO of Cargill and is a board member of the nonprofit Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR). Duane Benson is a Fillmore County rancher who serves on many public commissions and formerly was a state Senate minority leader (as a Republican from Lanesboro) and president of the Minnesota Business Partnership.