Last spring, Minnesota’s Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) found that although the state spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on early learning programs, it hadn’t done enough to determine where those programs are redundant, whether they are succeeding and how parents can more effectively choose their options.
So it is generally good news that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) will receive a $4.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Human Services to sort those problems out and develop more streamlined, well-evaluated and understandable programs for preschoolers.
At the same time, it’s legitimate to raise questions about spending that much on planning alone — without any of the funds used for direct service to children. Minnesota’s grant is not out of line with what other states receive for the same purpose. And MDE applied for funds that federal officials decided can only be used for planning. States that received the planning grants will then be eligible to apply for follow-up funds to implement their plans.
Certainly MDE and other agencies need improved data collection and coordination. The patchwork of regulations — and the involvement of state and federal agencies — make it difficult to track participants and evaluate how well the efforts are working. That complexity can make it hard for families to find the right programs and for school staff and other providers to administer them. As the Legislative Auditor’s report noted, Minnesota’s 42 early childhood programs are “complex and fragmented.”
Still, some efforts to improve that coordination are already underway. Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet was tasked with improving coordination between agencies.
State officials say the $4.7 million will be used in a variety of areas, including hiring outside consultants to evaluate record-keeping and communications systems. Some of the money will go to support listening sessions around the state to find out what families want and need from preschool programs. And a planning goal is to develop a centralized reporting system that would allow different departments to track services used by individual students or families.
In December, Minnesota was one of 45 states and territories that received federal early education planning funds for preschool development. States were invited to submit proposals to conduct comprehensive birth-through-age-5 needs assessments, develop a strategic plan and enhance parental choice. The proposals were supposed to address ways to expand the current early learning system, including child care centers and home-based, public, private and faith-based providers and state pre-K.
MDE submitted a proposal for $6.6 million and received $4.7 million. Grants to other states ranged from $538,000 to Utah to over $10.3 million to several states, including Alabama, Kentucky, New York and California.
Deputy MDE Commissioner Charlene Briner told an editorial writer that all of the programs in various agencies were established with “noble intent” to serve more children. Yet as initiatives were added over time by both the federal government and the state, they became more complicated to navigate and coordinate.
Minnesota receives millions of dollars from federal and other sources and spends more than $360 million in state funds annually on services for young learners and their families. It’s critical to do a more effective job tracking kids, coordinating programs and measuring results. Hopefully, the federal grant will make that possible.