The Minnesota Legislature should, after a decade of study and promising results, finally move to fully fund the high-quality day care and preschool that will prepare one-third or so of Minnesota kids who still show up not ready for kindergarten.
The best, most economical vehicle is not preschool for every Minnesota 4-year-old, the stance generally taken by Gov. Mark Dayton and the education lobby, because about three-quarters of Minnesota preschoolers already benefit from excellent school-readiness programs, private and public.
Dayton, the business lobby and Legislature should be commended for increasing baseline funding from $50 million to $120 million in the 2015-16 biennium for early-education scholarships for preschoolers and parents through the accredited “Parent Aware” program used by providers in day cares, community centers, churches, homes and public schools.
The scholarships of up to $7,500 per year cover year-round day care and requisite learning programs. And it is estimated that there are up to 40,000 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds who qualify but aren’t in a quality preschool program.
This is a critical human-potential, workforce and economic future issue that has received less attention than hundreds of millions of public money plowed into new football stadiums for the Gophers and Vikings.
“Our scholarships mean five days a week, eight hours a day or more, and the parents can go to work or school … and let’s start by covering the most at-risk kids,” said Art Rolnick, the retired Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank research chief who has championed early learning for 15 years as a critical public investment. “The middle- and upper-class families already can choose from great programs in their communities.”
Need-based public scholarships is the most effective approach because, in addition to school-based programs in some districts, they tap into centers, homes, churches and nonprofits that already are part of the growing network of high-quality day care and preschool centers in the same communities.
In March, a bipartisan group of state legislators, including Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon and Rep. Paul Thissen, the DFL minority leader, worked together on a bill that will coordinate and streamline six state programs that spend $400 million annually in state and federal dollars that range from Head Start to early learning scholarships and child care subsidies.
“Coordinating and reforming existing investments is an important step,” Thissen said. “But we also need additional resources to help children who still can’t access high-quality early education.”
He’s right. And it’s time to most efficiently and effectively target those who need it and whose families can’t afford it.
A recent Republican funding bill is ill-advised because it takes away some money from existing, voluntary pre-K programs in schools and nicks the K-12 funding formula downstream.
Conversely, Dayton needs to move off the statewide preschool bandwagon for all 4-year-olds. Too expensive. Not essential.
Research by the Minneapolis Fed and others indicates a $16 return to society for every $1 invested in terms of wages and taxes, and less social services or criminal justice involvement, over a lifetime of a high school graduate compared to kids who are not ready for school and who disproportionately drop out before high school graduation. That group tends to get pregnant earlier, has trouble with the law and draws more heavily on social services.
The business-funded Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) spent $20 million-plus on pilot programs, scholarships and developing the Parent Aware rating system with early-childhood experts between 2006-11.
Dayton wants to spend about $175 million more annually to cover voluntary preschool across the state for 4-year-olds in public schools. MELF’s successor (www.CloseGapsBy5.org) says it would cost about $105 million more per year to cover the remaining unserved 3- and 4-year-olds who need scholarships for all-day quality day care and preschool.
The educational-achievement gap disproportionately consists of low-income and minority kids. That’s not fair. It robs them of their full potential. And all hands will be needed working at their highest potential to replace retiring baby boomers and drive the growing Minnesota economy.