Early-childhood education deserves a legitimate, ongoing source of state funding, not tainted money from the expansion of copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota as proposed by Art Rolnick and Mike Meyers (“A pot of money for early education,” Jan. 26).
The economic as well as educational benefits of quality early-childhood education for Minnesota’s youngest citizens are well-documented. However, it is problematic to propose the use of a “pot of money” from sulfide-mining pollution that harms children’s brains (mercury contamination of fish and manganese contamination of drinking water) as a way to fund early-childhood education.
The serious health effects of sulfide mining on infants, children and adults are described in a letter recently signed by 153 Minnesota doctors, nurses, scientists and health professionals calling for a health risk assessment before any decisions are made on the PolyMet project, Minnesota’s first proposed sulfide mine. According to the signers of the health professionals’ letter: “We can’t afford additional mercury affecting babies and children in Minnesota. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and 1 out of 10 infants in our Lake Superior Region are already born with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood.”
It is especially ironic that children on Indian reservations in northeastern Minnesota would have to be poisoned by additional mercury in their food and other contaminants in their water before they could benefit from the proposed additional early-childhood education funding.
The funding source for this amazing “pot of gold” is the School Trust Lands Funds. Rolnick and Meyers expect that “[t]his cash trove soon may be worth millions more per year.” This is because they are counting on “[r]oyalties on new mines yielding copper and nickel [to] add hundreds of millions of dollars to the school trust fund in decades to come.”
This windfall would depend on new copper-nickel mining in northern Minnesota, which in turn would hinge on the outcome of mining exploration leases on land in northern Minnesota, including school trust lands. When these mineral exploration leases were authorized by Minnesota’s Executive Council, Auditor Rebecca Otto voted against them because mining companies have not provided sufficient financial assurance to protect taxpayers from having to pay for cleaning up pollution after mine closure.
New mining ventures cannot provide stable funding for early-childhood education, not only because they pose their own risks to taxpayers, but because of the volatile, cyclical nature of the mining industry. Mines frequently close and mining companies regularly go bankrupt because of price fluctuations. This is why adequate financial assurance for pollution cleanup is critically needed and why early-education funding from school trust lands mining leases would place our children’s education at risk.
Funding to expand early-childhood education in Minnesota deserves a broader, brighter vision. Minnesota has a strong track record of support for high-quality early-childhood education. We do not need a speculative and risky source of funding. Rather, we need to make a strong commitment to build on the investments that Minnesota already has made in Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), School Readiness, Early Head Start, Head Start and quality child care.
We need an early-childhood initiative that builds a coordinated system, starting with parents of infants and toddlers (ECFE, Early Head Start) and continues with universal prekindergarten education (expanding the work of School Readiness, Head Start and community-based child care). Trying to address this need with only the expansion of early learning scholarships for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds starts too late and reaches too few. Other states are much further along than Minnesota in implementing a more comprehensive vision for early-childhood education, with more than 40 of them providing state-funded prekindergarten programs, many with universal access.
It is a Faustian bargain to barter for early-childhood education dollars by linking the future of Minnesota’s children to copper-nickel mining, which brings contamination of our waters, including mercury poisoning for babies and young children. We need a plan that honors Mother Earth, while also preparing our children for future success.
Gail C. Roberts, of Mendota Heights, works in child development and early-childhood education.