Minnesota state agencies will use a $4.7 million federal grant to figure out how to make early learning programs more accessible and ensure that they are adequately preparing children for school.

The money from the U.S. Department of Human Services will cover one year of planning work, ranging from community listening sessions to in-depth analyses of the records systems the state uses to track the families it serves. It comes at a time when state lawmakers and agency leaders are increasingly focused on early education but are not always in agreement about how to spend money or assess whether programs are working.

With the additional help, Hue Nguyen, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, said she's hopeful "we can all get to a better place where we can come to an agreement of 'this is how we would like Minnesota's early learning to move forward in the future.' "

Nguyen said her agency and two others — the state departments of health and human services — turned to the federal government for help following the release of a report last spring by Minnesota's Office of the Legislative Auditor. It found that while Minnesota spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on a long list of early learning programs, it hasn't done enough to figure out where those programs overlap, whether they are succeeding or to help parents navigate their options.

The report said Minnesota's 42 programs related to early childhood create a patchwork that is "complex and fragmented" and in need of significant review.

State officials hope the work funded with the grant will answer many of the questions raised by the audit and yield a series of recommendations for funding and policy that could go to the Minnesota Legislature as soon as the 2020 session.

They expect that outside consultants hired with the money will help sort out needed changes in record-keeping and communications systems. For example, Minnesota currently lacks a centralized reporting system that would allow workers in different departments, such as education and human services, to track the services requested or used by a child or family. The state also doesn't have a standardized system for assessing and tracking students' readiness when they enter kindergarten.

Nancy Jost, chairwoman of Gov. Mark Dayton's Early Learning Council, said she's particularly excited that the grant will fund a series of community listening sessions across the state. She said it's important that state agencies do more to gather feedback from groups — such as communities of color and residents of rural communities — that are sometimes left out of policy decisions.

"It makes so much sense to ask the people who are impacted: What do you think?" she said.

The state will be eligible to apply for an additional, three-year grant to implement the plans it makes this year.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790