A dozen years ago, the University of Minnesota invited business leaders to hear about Minnesota's alarming achievement gap, and what they were learning about brain development between birth and age 5.
Out of that meeting, a business task force was formed to study how Minnesota could develop cost-effective strategies for improving early learning. Among other things, the task force was startled to learn that the state spent more than $1.5 billion annually in private and public funds for child care and early education programming, yet half of our kids still weren't ready for kindergarten.
We set out to find a better way. The task force recommended a public-private partnership to conduct a multiyear pilot project to find new approaches for improving kindergarten-readiness outcomes. As a result, Cargill Inc., H.B. Fuller Co., the Greater Twin Cities United Way and the McKnight Foundation formed the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF).
MELF brought together business and community leaders who funded pilot projects to get Minnesota children "school-ready," and to evaluate the results through independent third-party research. This level of public-private cooperation and innovation is extremely unusual, so much so that the Harvard Business School recently published a case study on the initiative.
The Minnesota Model that emerged had three primary components:
• Quality improvement. The centerpiece of the effort was a voluntary Parent Aware Quality Rating and Improvement System to help volunteer child care and early education providers adopt kindergarten-readiness best practices.
• Ratings and public education. The Parent Aware Ratings were developed and promoted to help parents invest their $1 billion per year of out-of-pocket spending more wisely, in high-quality, Parent Aware-rated providers.
• Scholarships for low-income kids. Finally, publicly funded scholarships helped low-income children access high-quality Parent Aware-rated providers based in centers, schools, churches and nonprofit organizations.
MELF concluded its efforts in 2011, but work on this Minnesota Model continued. The Dayton administration leveraged the MELF work to earn a four-year, $45 million federal grant to roll out this proven model statewide. And the collaboration with the private sector continued with resources and leadership to support the state's rollout effort.
This bipartisan-from-the-start approach has been winning attention and supporters. Parents and providers love the flexibility of scholarships. A MinneMinds coalition of more than 100 organizations has endorsed it. Gov. Dayton even ran a campaign ad touting his support of this approach at a facility with a four-star Parent Aware rating.
After more than a decade of research, pilots and demonstration projects and more than $100 million in collaborative private and public investment, Minnesota seemed well on its way to a proven, cost-effective strategy to get all children ready for school. Other states also were taking note of this research-based Minnesota Model.
Into this emerging consensus, the Minnesota Department of Education proposed a very different approach for 4-year-old children.
• Schools-only mandate. While scholarship recipients can currently choose from a network of neighborhood-based private, public and nonprofit early learning providers, the department proposes a schools-only approach for all 4-year-olds. This system would be significantly less flexible, culturally diverse and family-friendly than the proven scholarship approach. For instance, school hours often don't match work schedules as well as child care providers' hours, but the schools-only mandate leaves parents no options. It would also be costly — $1.25 billion over the first four years.
• Redirecting funds to wealthier families. Despite the fact that Minnesota has some of the worst education achievement gaps in the nation, the department's proposal would direct millions of dollars of public funding to better-off children whose families currently pay their own way, rather than prioritizing the children whose families cannot afford high-quality early education.
• Leaves 70,000 low-income children behind. While subsidizing wealthier families of 4-year-olds at a high cost, the department's proposal would leave behind about 70,000 infants to 3-year-olds from low-income families who are unable to access high-quality early education.
So state leaders are left with this choice. In the coming weeks, leaders can choose to expand a flexible, targeted and proven model — Parent Aware plus scholarships — that has earned broad community support and that has proved effective and efficient. Or they can choose to start over, building a system from scratch that would be untested, inflexible, expensive, regressive and disruptive to the existing early learning system.
It is time to choose. For the sake of the children who could be left behind, the taxpayers paying the bills and Minnesota's future economy, we need to choose wisely.