When Gov. Mark Dayton started constructing his 2015 budget, he asked for my thoughts, and as always, I started by drawing on my own experience.
My colleagues and I spend our days working to achieve truly equitable opportunities for every Minnesota child. As a former teacher, school administrator, superintendent and now commissioner, it is a mission to which I have devoted my life. I spend a great deal of time speaking with educators throughout the state and across the nation, looking for best practices that are effective, data-driven and research-based that will benefit every child in Minnesota.
What data and research have shown is that to truly close achievement gaps, our work with children must start earlier, with comprehensive efforts targeted toward our youngest Minnesotans.
The governor started this work in earnest in 2011, investing in early-learning scholarships that give children from low-income families access to quality early-education programs. Next, we added full-day, every-day kindergarten, which in addition to giving more kids a great academic start is saving families an average of $5,000 per year in child care costs.
This year, the governor’s budget proposal continues to build on that foundation, investing in a wide-ranging portfolio of strategies aimed squarely at our littlest learners.
We have seen improvement in recent years in the number of children coming to school ready to learn. However, far too many are still unprepared. While scholarships have played — and will continue to play — an invaluable role in leveling the playing field for some at-risk children, Minnesota is faced with substantial unmet needs that scholarships alone cannot fully address. A multifaceted, comprehensive approach at every level is needed if we hope to reach all children.
Recent research shows that in addition to being cost-effective, statewide universal preschool programs are one of the most effective ways to identify and reach children with high needs, giving them the resources and intensity necessary to become prepared for school. That is why the governor proposes investing in free, all-day, high-quality public preschool. This investment will serve 57,000 4-year-olds in just a few years. When you add that to full-day kindergarten, all Minnesota children will have the strong foundation they deserve in order to succeed in school.
The governor also continues to demonstrate his commitment to lifting up children living in poverty. A recent report in the Star Tribune showed that for the first time in our nation’s history, more than 50 percent of students in public schools are living in poverty. In Minnesota, that number is 38 percent. This is unacceptable.
To disrupt the devastating effects of poverty on young children, the governor continues to make scholarships a key part of his overall early learning strategy, making them even more flexible for income-eligible families with children from ages 0 to 5. Additionally, his budget would provide continued support for the Northside Achievement Zone and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, both of which are working to break the cycle of generational poverty in some of our state’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.
Finally, the governor is seeking to fully fund Head Start. Last year, 2,485 kids living in deep poverty were denied access to Head Start, a life-changing program that promotes school readiness for low-income children and connects their families to health, educational, nutritional and other services. Dayton’s budget would eliminate that waiting list.
Why do I say life-changing? Because as a Head Start baby myself, I am living proof. Head Start first came to Minnesota in 1967. A few years later, I attended one of the first classes in the Glendale projects. As a member of that early cohort of young learners, I developed a love of learning that has lasted a lifetime. In Head Start, I reaped the benefit of what we now know are preschool’s biggest contributions to long-term academic success: the so-called “soft skills” that help children learn to pay attention and stay on task. My earliest teachers instilled in me the principles of hard work, goodness and perseverance — qualities not measured by a test, but which have proved invaluable, not just during my school years, but throughout my professional career.
Head Start truly changed the trajectory of my life, and it changes the lives of thousands of children in Minnesota every year.
That’s why this budget matters. Along with additional provisions in the human services and health budgets, the governor’s blueprint for early success has the power to transform young lives in the same way mine was transformed. It has the power to begin breaking the cycle of poverty that has trapped families for too long, to empower parents and instill hope where before there was none. It has the power to spark our state’s next generation of innovators and thinkers: CEOs, community leaders and commissioners.
So when the governor asked for my recommendations, experience pointed the way. Because years ago, while a little girl named Brenda was selling flowers on the street corner to help her family get by, there were leaders who believed in me, leaders who said that early education — and equitable opportunity for every child — should be a priority.
Brenda Cassellius is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.