Early childhood programs and funding are getting lots of attention recently with a push at both the state and federal levels to expand funding and offerings.
That’s a good thing. Our children’s early years deserve the deepest investment possible because the payoff is so obvious. It’s also to our advantage in southern Minnesota that this area has been a leader in early childhood education for a long time.
Last week was the 10th anniversary celebration of the Minnesota Early Childhood Initiative. Collaborated by the Minnesota Initiative Foundations, the program has grown to include 90 community and county coalitions based in more than 300 sites, said Sara Carlson, program officer for the Southwest Initiative Foundation.
Each coalition is tailored to its region’s unique needs. The network of coalitions focuses on quality care and education for children from birth to age 5. A main priority over the years has been to offer training to child care providers.
The importance of strengthening early childhood education programs and expanding them is proven by the support they receive beyond government funding. The Mankato business community has been a strong supporter of early childhood programs. The United Way here helps fund nine programs to help families afford preschool or other early-childhood education. And in 2012, the McKnight Foundation made a three-year grant of $900,000 to the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation for the Early Childhood Initiative. The grant is to strengthen the early literacy goal of improvement pre-K to grade 3 outcomes for children across the state.
This year the state of Minnesota took decisive action to invest in its young children. A bill was passed at the Legislature that added $485 million to the education budget over the next two years, including $134 million for all-day kindergarten.The bill also added $40 million in government scholarships for low-income parents to send their kids to preschool. It’s an expansion of a program first piloted in three sites, including Blue Earth and Nicollet counties.
On the federal level, the Obama administration has proposed a plan that would make high-quality preschool affordable for all children. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Minnesota this month and praised the state for making early education a priority. But he also noted in an opinion piece in the Star Tribune that despite Minnesota’s increased efforts, there are still 35,000 3- and 4-year-olds without access to high-quality learning opportunities. Low-income children are most often the ones who miss out on top-notch child care.
The president’s proposal is to make high-quality, full-day preschool available to all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. In addition, a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership would be launched to expand learning opportunities for infants and toddlers.
The purpose of giving as many children as possible a jump start on learning isn’t to have them reading by the time they are walking. The goal is to introduce every child to language, books, song and play so that their brain development — so crucial in the first few years — can thrive.
That’s an investment that makes sense and that should be sustained for our children and grandchildren and for generations to come.