After years of legislative inattention, early education is finally getting the traction it deserves in Minnesota. Last session, lawmakers approved state-supported all-day kindergarten for all 5-year-olds. Before that, the state funded need-based scholarships to send 3- and 4-year-olds to approved, high-quality preschool programs.
The 2015 Legislature has the opportunity to make more progress for preschoolers based on the general — and often bipartisan — support for some of the ideas that have already been introduced. One of those proposals, which calls for state-funded, school-based programs for all 4-year-olds, should be modified. Rather than approving a universal program, lawmakers should fund expansion of the current scholarship program targeted to lower-income students.
Here’s why: Scholarships can be directed to those children who most need them, giving Minnesota the best chance to close an achievement gap that plagues too many lower-income students of color. Research shows that providing high-quality preschool to lower-income students brings the best return on investment. For every dollar spent on the youngest kids, society receives $7 as that child becomes a well-educated, productive adult.
Because funding is limited based on other state needs, low-income little ones should be served first, because they are the ones who are most likely to start kindergarten behind and to have the most difficultly catching up through their school years. Funding all 4-year-olds — even those who don’t need it — is a poor use of limited tax resources.
Scholarships or stipends also are more flexible. They can be used for public, private, nonprofit and even home-based programs, as long as they meet quality standards set by the state. They can be used not only for 4-year-olds but for younger kids as well to start building a strong foundation for learning. With stipends, parents can choose the program that best fits their needs — including ones that are culturally sensitive or closer to home or work.
MinneMinds, a coalition of more than 100 state organizations and funders, is wisely lobbying for scholarship expansion because of the good results achieved since 2011. Programs such as the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, the Promise Neighborhood in St. Paul and the rural Itasca County and White Earth Transformation Zones have produced significant improvement in school readiness.
In Minneapolis, for example, half of the first two NAZ groups tested ready for kindergarten, compared with only a third of the neighborhood kids and families who did not participate. Those programs received federal Race to the Top pilot funds that are due to end this year.
MinneMinds reports that existing scholarships allowed about 5,000 children to access high-quality early-learning programs last year. But there are still an estimated 15,000 eligible children who won’t have access unless state funding is increased.
Art Rolnick, early-education advocate, researcher and former Minneapolis Fed economist, adds that schools-only universal preschool locks taxpayers into the most expensive approach. Programs within public schools are and should continue to be among the options for parents. But those programs tend to cost more per student than other high-quality options.
In his State of the State address and budget plan, Gov. Mark Dayton called for state-supported preschool programs for all 4-year-olds. His budget proposal allots $106 million for the 2016-17 school year in matching funds to prod school districts to expand the programs. In addition, he recommends spending $55.5 million over the biennium for Head Start, literacy-by-third-grade efforts, child care subsidies and wrap-around community-based programs — plus $100 million for child care subsidies for working families.
Mirroring similar priorities, a group of key DFL senators recently released their education proposals for this session. That package includes 11 bills that would provide free school breakfast for kindergartners through sixth graders, free student eye exams, more school counselors, more money to fix up aging schools — and free preschool for all 4-year-olds.
Dayton and the Legislature should be commended for their recent focus on the state’s preschoolers. As they continue to work through the legislative session, they should emphasize choices that will have the greatest impact on students who really need the help.