Expand choices in Dayton Pre-K plan

Kudos to Gov. Mark Dayton for making early childhood education a major priority in his proposed budget. This reflects a growing consensus that early childhood investments must be part of a long term strategy to prepare Minnesota’s young people for academic success — and ultimately success in the workplace. 

Numerous studies — including pilot programs orchestrated by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) — have proven that quality early childhood programs can make a huge difference. Delivering children to the kindergarten classroom fully ready to learn produces an enormous return on investment. 

Research by Art Rolnick, a former official at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and now a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute, concludes that every dollar spent on quality early childhood education pays dividends. His analysis documents an inflation adjusted 16 percent return. Not too shabby. 

In short, kids who show up ready to learn in kindergarten do better all through school (thereby reducing remedial and special education costs as well as drop-out rates). Beyond that they become more productive workers who are less likely to burden taxpayers with the costs related to crime and welfare.

Recognizing the importance of early childhood investments, Dayton rightly devotes new resources toward this goal. Dayton is to be lauded for his aim of eliminating the Head Start waiting list and reducing the Child Care Assistance program waiting list. His proposal to enhance the child care tax credit is also a worthy initiative. Perhaps even more valuable is his commitment to sustaining the Parent Aware rating system — designed to promote academic quality in all child care and pre-school settings.

The only objection I would register with the governor’s early childhood agenda is his apparent preference for funding a schools-only Pre-K model (to the tune of $100 million rising to $200 million per year) instead of allocating those same dollars to early childhood scholarships, which parents can use at high quality early education based in schools, centers, churches or homes.

Even though upwards of $200 million seems a lot — it is not sufficient to meet the need and this amount is most likely to be readily “gobbled up” by metro and suburban school districts who are more capable than their rural counterparts to pursue expansion into pre-school space. So, naturally, those of us in rural regions are understandably nervous about the governor’s Pre-K proposal.

A larger concern, however, attends to another factor. Shifting Pre-K to the public school system spends far too much without targeting those dollars to children most in need. Early childhood education is now being provided through government programs like Head Start (which targets those families in greatest financial need) and through a mix of private and non-profit childcare settings — including in-home care. 

The state of Minnesota — through partners across the state like the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation — is now promoting higher academic standards for all early childhood providers. Income based scholarships are also now available for families who choose a facility that has earned this quality rating. And, low income families can also receive larger Child Care Assistance subsidies — if they send their children to a quality rated program.

The point is Minnesota already has thousands of early childhood providers who are meeting the needs of our pre-school age students. And, increasingly, these providers are on track to attain Parent Aware training so as to improve their academic standards. 

Minnesota’s neediest families are eligible for scholarships and child care assistance — and for less than the cost of the governor’s school-based Pre-K plan, we could give scholarships to those families most in need and those children who would most benefit from this educational opportunity.

Minnesota does not need to supplant the current system of public, private and non-profit early education providers with a schools-only based approach. For far less money, we can build on the current system through targeted scholarships tied to quality — and thereby better deliver the result we seek: all of Minnesota’s children entering kindergarten ready to learn .

Tim Penny is president and chief executive officer of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

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