As I listen to political debates, the bottom line often sounds like this: One side wants more government, the other side opposes more government, and both sides struggle to see common ground where they can compromise and get something done.

I submit that the common ground is more effective and accountable government. That’s something both sides should be able to support.

Take the issue of prekindergarten early education. Both political parties want to see improvements, and the common ground that both sides should be able to embrace is more effective and accountable government support of early education, namely CCAP reform.

Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) is a long-standing government program that provides $170 million per year to child care providers serving low-income children from birth to age 5 It’s the largest of many state government funding streams currently funding child care and early education.

CCAP has helped a lot of vulnerable kids, but it has a major flaw — it currently funds providers who are not using kindergarten-readiness best practices.

At a time when too many Minnesota children are arriving in kindergarten unprepared, and many never catch up, it’s not OK that Minnesota’s largest child care program doesn’t require use of kindergarten-readiness best practices.

After all, when it comes to early education, quality is key. To justify early-education investments, many like to cite research done by economists Art Rolnick and Rob Gruenwald from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. That groundbreaking research found that every $1 invested in providing high-quality early education to low-income children yields up to $16 in societal benefits, such as lower costs for special education, human services, law enforcement, health care and prison.

For policymakers looking to save money, do better by kids and close the K-12 achievement gap, that’s eye-opening research. But it’s important to pay attention to the fine print.

The details of that study show that the 16-to-1 return on taxpayer investment is available only if the money goes to the kind of high-quality early care and education that prepares children for kindergarten. Investing in low quality doesn’t yield such a high return. In fact, low quality can actually set children back.

Over the last three years, state government has, with broad bipartisan support, required use of kindergarten-readiness best practices by recipients of another early-education program, Early Learning Scholarships. Unfortunately, the CCAP program, which is more than six times larger than the scholarship program, lacks such a quality-control requirement.

CCAP reform is not the only pre-K improvement Minnesota needs. We also need to fund flexible, portable scholarships to help more than 15,000 low-income kids access high-quality pre-K education. But CCAP reform is a critical need that we have ignored for too long. Whether providers serve children in home-based, school-based, center-based or church-based programs, they need to use kindergarten-readiness best practices if they are going to collect millions in CCAP subsidies.

Legislation offered in recent years included a lengthy phase-in period for the reform, with coaching and grants to help providers adopt the best practices — something that over 1,600 Minnesota providers of all types, regions and sizes have already done. A bipartisan group of state leaders, including state Sens. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, the Dayton administration, and the Minnesota Business Partnership and the Chamber of Commerce have supported this approach.

This concept is also supported by the public with a recent survey that found 73 percent of Minnesotans in agreement that “we should only allow tax dollars to be spent on early-childhood-education providers who are proven to be effective in preparing children for kindergarten.”

This type of CCAP reform is neither more government nor less government. It’s more effective and accountable government. And that’s the kind of middle ground that all Minnesota leaders should be able to embrace.


Duane Benson is a Fillmore County rancher who currently serves on many public commissions. The Lanesboro Republican is a former state Senate Minority Leader and also was executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.