In July 2020, the Minnesota Legislature’s special session focused on police reforms. Though the reviews on the output are mixed, and more work is needed to improve law enforcement and make Minnesota a more equitable state, that focused attempt was absolutely necessary.
But it wasn’t sufficient. The list of things that need to change to make Minnesota more equitable is a long one. Every item on the list is important, but we must prioritize the list. Because resources are always limited, being for everything is effectively being for nothing.
To kill a stubborn weed, you must get at its roots. The same is true of our efforts to limit the damage done by societal inequity. At the roots of inequitable opportunities for disadvantaged adults is often inequitable education. And at the roots of inequitable education is inequitable access to high-quality early learning programs during the first five years of life. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
After all, research shows that Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation educational achievement gaps are present as early as age one. While we know that low-income Minnesota children who can access quality Parent Aware-rated early learning programs are making kindergarten-readiness gains, for years about 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age 5 haven’t been able to access such programs.
That’s a huge problem, because education is a sequential building process. Each new skill that we learn throughout our lives is built on the foundation of previously mastered skills. Through no fault of their own, left-behind children end up lacking in those foundational skills and knowledge. Over their entire lives, their lack of early learning opportunities stacks the deck against them.
Most at the State Capitol are very aware of this problem. We rarely encounter an elected official from either major party who doesn’t agree with us that the key to addressing lifetime inequity is to close achievement gaps, and that a key to closing achievement gaps is closing early learning opportunity gaps.
But here’s the problem: We talk about it, but we never do enough about it. Year after year, those 35,000 most vulnerable children get left behind, again. That disconnect between early learning talk and action is a big reason why Minnesota society remains so inequitable.
Again, we support the focus this summer making law enforcement more effective and equitable. After watching the Legislature so focused on that issue last summer, we were left wondering why the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz can’t similarly attack the roots of inequity, early learning opportunity gaps?
Last year, Minnesota came very close to making significant progress on early learning. Led by House Speaker Melissa Hortman, Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, Rep. Dave Pinto and others, the DFL-controlled House proposed a large early learning package as their signature piece of legislation, H.F. 1. Led by Republican Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Carla Nelson, Sen. Jerry Relph and others, the GOP-controlled Senate supported a central part of the House proposal, Early Learning Scholarships to help low-income children under age five access high-quality Parent Aware-rated programs.
In these polarized times, it’s almost unheard of to have agreement across the two major political parties, and across the two chambers of the Minnesota Legislature. But last winter, for one brief, shining moment we had that with Early Learning Scholarships.
But then came the pandemic, and then the George Floyd tragedy. As a result, the focus on early learning was abandoned by the Legislature in favor of those two pressing issues. (Note: A significant amount of pandemic relief did go to keeping child care centers and homes open to essential workers over the short-term, but that critical relief didn’t help the left-behind children at the roots of our achievement gaps.)
We fully understand why the Legislature’s shift in focus happened, and we applaud the excellent, though incomplete, work done on those two fronts. But that setback those left-behind young children took last March cannot be permanent.
The 2021 legislative session should be the early learning session. Yes, funding is a challenge during this horrible pandemic, but the Legislature continually finds resources to do big, important things. This year, in the name of getting at the roots of stubborn equity problems, there is no more important need than expanding access to early learning.
Don Samuels, a former toy industry executive, Minneapolis City Council member and Minneapolis school board director, is CEO of MicroGrants. Art Rolnick, former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is on the board of Way to Grow, Think Small and the Northside Achievement Zone.