In the last election, one message from Minnesota voters seemed to come through loud and clear. Minnesotans are demanding public policies that work in all parts of our state — rural, urban, exurban and suburban. Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships are that kind of policy.

Minnesota has an achievement gap crisis that we must address as soon as possible. Compared to other states, Minnesota has some of the nation’s worst achievement gaps — the disparity in learning achievement between groups of children defined by race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. These achievement gaps pose a grave threat to our collective future, because our state must have a well-educated population in order to have successful families, communities and economies.

Achievement gaps start very early in life. In fact, research shows they can be measured as early as age one. For that reason, we need to ensure that the most vulnerable, low-income children are in high quality learning environments early in life, before gaps grow unmanageable. The longer we wait to help the most vulnerable children, the more difficult it is for even the most skilled educators to close the gaps.

High-quality early education can prevent, narrow or close achievement gaps.

But the problem is, about 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age five live in families unable to afford a high quality early learning program, and these are the children who are most likely to fall into achievement gaps. These “left behind” kids must be the Legislature’s top priority.

These 35,000 children are spread out in rural, suburban, exurban and urban areas across Minnesota, so we need an early education tool that will work in all types of Minnesota communities.

Early Learning Scholarships are the most flexible early education tool we have available to us. With flexible scholarships, Minnesota parents can choose a high quality early education program based in a school, center, home, church or nonprofit organization. For that reason, scholarships fit all types of communities, regardless of what mix of early learning programs happen to be available in any given community.

Scholarships are working well in Greater Minnesota. Last year about 48 percent of scholarships are being used in the seven-county metro area, and 52 percent are going to children in Greater Minnesota. Given that about 60 percent of Minnesota’s population lives in the metro area, scholarships clearly fit well in diverse Greater Minnesota communities.

While some types of early education tools have been more politically polarizing, scholarships have enjoyed strong bipartisan support over the years. For instance, they were expanded statewide with the support of Gov. Mark Dayton and a bipartisan group of state legislators, led in part by House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

Beyond working well in all parts of Minnesota, another advantage of Scholarships is that they put program selection decisions in the hands of parents, not politicians. They allow parents to select a program that fits their schedule, location, and culture, rather than mandating a one-size-fits-all approach.

So, for instance, maybe a low-income parent is working an eight-hour shift, and therefore can’t use a school-based pre-K program that is only offered three hours per day. With scholarships, they can choose a high quality non-school program that offers full-day, full-year hours. At the same time, if a school-based program best fits a parent’s needs, they can use their scholarship there.

We should listen to the needs of Minnesota parents. For instance, a recent survey of low-income parents living throughout Minnesota found that an overwhelming 87 percent oppose “a government program in which a parent would only be able to use a program that offers care for their child for three hours per day.”

These kinds of decisions should be made by individual parents, rather than politicians and lobbyists creating earmarks and mandates. That’s why Scholarships are working so well for a variety of different kinds of parents, in a variety of different kinds of Minnesota communities. Scholarships are the most flexible tool for addressing achievement gaps, and they are targeted to our most at-risk children. So that is where our legislators should direct early education investments.

Duane Benson is a rancher, former Minnesota Senate Minority Leader, R-Lanesboro, former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, and former executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. Tim Penny is president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, a member of the Close Gaps by 5 Board of Directors, and a former Democratic member of Congress representing southeastern Minnesota.

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