Suppose you had a problem that you knew how to attack but were content to wait a lifetime to finish the job. Would anyone think that’s OK?
That’s where Minnesota stands in providing educational opportunities to 35,000 of its youngest, most-vulnerable children now left behind in the current state budget. If the state tiptoes ahead with aid at the current tempo, reaching every at-risk kid will take nearly 70 years. Americans may colonize Mars before every Minnesota child who needs help gets it.
Gov. Tim Walz faces increasing pressure to act. Walz recently received a call to action in a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 150 former Minnesota elected officials, business executives and nonprofit leaders.
“Tragically, Minnesota has some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, gaps that open as early as age one,” the letter said. “If we don’t get on top of this festering problem soon, it won’t be long before Minnesota’s communities, economy and children are harmed.”
The governor should heed the call.
Once a leader in educating children under age five — Minnesota started pilot programs more than a dozen years ago — the state lately has been marking time. The state’s $70 million in scholarship spending for the low-income parents to find quality education for their children, under age 5, has gone unchanged since 2017.
Only an administrative change and a one-time $4.5 million extension of scholarship programs already in place, recently added a meager 500 to early-education rolls.
What’s required to offer scholarships to the 35,000 children now left on their own? Big money, but not in comparison to what the state already is spending. The state budget for K-12 education is $10 billion a year.
That money has bought a good education for many but lamentable results for some — tagging Minnesota with an achievement gap that shows no sign of narrowing.
The cost of pre-K education for every child from a low-income family would be an additional $420 million a year. That’s a 4% increase over current public education spending. What would the state get in return? Kids who are better prepared. Children who enter kindergarten already exposed to reading, math and other skills. In short, students who have learned to learn.
The state’s complacency on increasing early childhood education comes at a time when the benefits of pre-K education are clear.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have proposed federal initiatives to extend pre-K. And the Federal Reserve System views early education as an economic tool. The central bank recently honored Minneapolis Fed economist Rob Grunewald for efforts that “have provided deep and lasting impact on the well-being of many lower-income individuals and families.”
Grunewald won a pledge of $20 million from local businesses to set up a “four-star” evaluation system that helped parent evaluate preschool programs competing for students.
“As of 2018, nearly 16,000 early learning scholarships have been offered to children,” the Fed noted in its citation.
Pre-K programs in Minnesota offer more than promise. They’re delivering results — measurable and sustainable.
The time to extend help to all children who need it is now. Let’s not wait until the approach of the 22nd century.