Means-tested preschool scholarships vs. tuition-free public preschool for 4-year-olds. That tersely sums up several years of tension at the Legislature over how best to get more Minnesota children fully prepared for kindergarten by the time they're 5 years old.
In the 2016-17 state budget, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature settled that "either-or" squabble with a classic compromise: They increased funding for both. Scholarships to fund early education for young children for low-income families saw a $55 million increase over the previous two years, more than doubling their reach. And school districts were allowed to bid for $25 million in grants to enable the launch of prekindergarten classes for 4-year-olds, while another needs-based funding stream for preschool in school districts more than doubled.
Here's hoping the veterans of that battle have not fully retreated to their starting corners in 2017. At a Jan. 27 gathering of nonprofit organizations who advocate for children and youth at the Legislature, early education specialists praised the wisdom of the state providing multiple options and maximum flexibility for local communities to meet the learning needs of their youngest citizens.
"It's very important that we continue with mixed delivery systems," said Tammy Filippi of the Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation, serving central Minnesota.
"Some communities in our region have great options for families," including both in-home and center-based child care and private preschools, Filippi said. In such places, adding school-based preschool could disrupt existing business models and prove counterproductive. "In other places we're very limited, and the [public] school may be the best option," she said.
Fillippi was alluding to a problem that's becoming acute in Greater Minnesota — a shortage of licensed child care. The Mankato-based Center for Rural Policy and Development called it a "quiet crisis" last fall as it described a gap between the number of children under age 6 with both parents working and the enrollment capacity of licensed providers. While a gap exists in every region of the state, it's largest in northeastern Minnesota, where capacity is 55 percent short.
"In Itasca County alone, we are 500 slots short" of meeting the demand, said Sonja Merrild of the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids. She pleaded for flexible funding streams that can be adapted to local needs. "We have a lot of work to do."
There's enough work to employ all of the state's proven public policy tools for early learning improvement. That's why we were glad to see an increase in child-care subsidies for low-income families in Dayton's budget.
Too often a neglected stepchild in recent years, the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) never recovered from dramatic funding cuts 14 years ago. Its waiting list has grown from fewer than 1,000 families in 2003 to more than 5,500 today. Those able to obtain subsidies often find they aren't sufficient to make licensed care affordable — and care providers in low-income portions of the state in turn have seen their market shrink, pushing them out of business. A policy strategy for easing the licensed-care shortage should include a CCAP increase.
But Dayton's budget is too stingy with early learning scholarships, which serve at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds. (CCAP supports child care through age 12.) The governor proposes to add some younger children while continuing scholarship funding at current levels. Meanwhile, he would triple grants to school districts that seek to establish preschool programs for 4-year-olds. That's not a sufficient response to a finding last year by the nonprofit advocacy group Close Gaps by 5 that today's scholarship program leaves 40,000 needy children unserved.
The Legislature should strike a balance more favorable to scholarships. But it should not refuse more help either to families served by CCAP or to school districts seeking to establish preschool in places where other options are in short supply. All of those policy tools have a role to play to make quality early childhood experiences both affordable and available throughout the state. Another classic compromise is in order this year.