Minnesota has a long list of state programs to help preschoolers build strong educational foundations. Those efforts are largely designed to keep them healthy and give them a better chance of succeeding in school.
Yet as various early education programs have been added over the years, each with its own rules and eligibility criteria, they have become increasingly complicated and fragmented. The patchwork of regulations and the involvement of state and federal agencies make it difficult to track participants and evaluate how well the efforts are working.
That complexity can make it hard for families to find the right programs and for school staff and other providers to administer them.
That’s the conclusion of a new report from the state Office of the Legislative Auditor (OLA) on Minnesota’s early childhood programs. The auditor rightly recommends that lawmakers work to remove barriers so state agencies can streamline the system and gather important data on outcomes. In a letter to lawmakers, the OLA wrote: “Even quite similar programs have different eligibility and program requirements. We also found that the lack of important data prevents Minnesota from measuring the statewide effectiveness of most early childhood programs.”
Some estimates say that children from birth to age 5 are eligible for support from over 40 state programs — some of which are directed at families. However, the OLA focused on nine with more direct ties to preschoolers. Those programs, administered mostly by the departments of education and health and human services are: Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE), health and development screenings, home health visits, Head Start, school readiness, voluntary preschool and Parent Aware Quality Ratings, child care assistance, and early learning scholarships.
Some of those programs are for low-income children only — but the income thresholds for others can be significantly different. ECFE programs involve sliding-scale payments from parents based on income. Head Start, which has been around for decades and receives millions in federal funding, has its own eligibility rules. And the most recent addition, voluntary pre-K, started last year, so it will be a while before data can be collected.
It was also nearly impossible to determine whether there is duplication of services, the OLA reported, due to lack of a unique system to identify children enrolled in multiple programs overseen by various agencies. Programs either do not collect data or gather it differently, making it hard to assess the information across programs statewide. In addition, current state and federal laws limit the ability of state agencies to share data for privacy reasons even when they oversee related programs.
To be sure, there is ample research highlighting the value of quality preschool education. But because of the way programs have developed in Minnesota, it’s difficult to compare and evaluate them.
Minnesota now spends more than $360 million annually on services for young learners and their families, not including the millions that come from federal and other sources. Improving alignment would take time and resources. Still, it is important to do a better job evaluating the effectiveness of those programs, and following the OLA’s recommendations would be a good start.