Advocates for little learners ought to have been pleased when, at their Sept. 15 debate, all three major-party candidates for governor professed that early childhood education is among their policy priorities.

But seven years after deep cuts in state child care subsidies and parenthood education funding, those advocates have heard lip service from politicians before, and have seen little accomplished.

Last week, a coalition of eight organizations dedicated to improving the school-readiness of Minnesota 5-year-olds described what they really want from the next governor and Legislature. Calling their alliance Minnesota's Future (, they are directing attention to steps state government should take in the next several years to reach this goal: that every Minnesota 5-year-old is ready for kindergarten by 2020.

It's a specific, practical to-do list: Home visits and more parent education for first-time parents. A statewide system for rating the quality and measuring the results of preschool programs. Community-based partnerships to measure and meet local early learning needs. Reorganization of state government's executive branch to bring early education policy to the fore.

Then there's the big-ticket item: Minnesota's Future aims to double, from 18,000 to 36,000, the number of children up to age 4 from low-income families who participate in high-quality early learning opportunities.

The most promising way to generate that improvement is the one being tested now in three St. Paul neighborhoods. The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation's three-year pilot project, begun in 2008, gives low-income families scholarships for high-quality preschool. While the project remains a work in progress, it has been well-received by the families of its 650 participating children.

Extend that kind of program statewide, and the cost would run an estimated $186 million per year. Compared with what the state spends on K-12 and higher education, that's a pittance. But it's also hard to come by at a time of deep deficits.

No problem, said Republican candidate Tom Emmer at a Sept. 7 debate in Duluth: "We've got a ton of money being put into our early childhood system right now. It's just not focused." He proposes diverting some or all of the state's child care subsidy money -- $85 million in 2010-11, down from $104 million in 2002-03 -- to preschool programs.

If high-quality preschool programs were uniformly available to every family in every neighborhood, that idea would have merit. But that's not the reality, said Todd Otis of Ready 4 K. Abruptly restricting the use of state child care subsidies to preschool programs would leave some needy families with no child care and no way to remain in the workforce. A strategy is needed that adds to low-income families' child care options instead of subtracting from them.

DFLer Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner have the better approach: new money for preschool scholarships, financed by both restructuring other state priorities and raising taxes. Dayton has not specified how much; Horner is talking about $30 million, as part of a $100 million two-year package of new education investments he favors.

Minnesota's Future is asking for more -- $250 million per year when their scholarship program, home visits, parent education and quality rating system are fully implemented. If that sounds steep, consider the experience of Michigan, as described in a recent Wilder Foundation study. There, 25 years of investing a comparable sum in early childhood education produced more than $1 billion last year in government cost savings and additional tax revenue, not to mention $700 million in additional earnings by the adults who once participated in state-subsidized preschool programs. Minnesota can't afford not to get in on an investment opportunity that produces a return that strong.