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Major early childhood experiment hits money woes, still aims high

MELF – that's the sound a tire makes when it runs over a nail.

The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) has hit a nail of its own, a down economy and lower-than-expected fundraising. Its 2009 budget has been deflated by 36 percent, from $7.8 million to $5 million.

It is suspending support for 500 Under 5, an early childhood initiative in north Minneapolis, and for the Wayzata-based Caring for Kids Initiative,) until additional funds are secured. St. Paul's Early Childhood Scholarship Program — MELF's flagship — is losing funding, too, and will eliminate its parent mentoring support to keep more children enrolled.

MELF's successes and funding challenges are explained in its recently released 2008 annual report. (pdf) Things could change as fundraising efforts and state early childhood funding decisions evolve.

MELF's mission is to recommend cost-effective strategies for preparing children to succeed in school. The project was always time-limited, running through 2011. MELF is forging ahead with the St. Paul early childhood scholarship program, program evaluations and Parent Aware, a rating system that helps parents judge early childhood program quality.

MELF is trying to put some air back in its tires, too, says board member Art Rolnick, senior vice president and director of research for the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank. True, MELF had hoped to raise $30 million and it has raised $14 million so far, he said. On the optimistic side, the MELF board unanimously agreed at its last meeting to increase funding by another $5 million — and it will come from the board members. (For the 2008 board members list, click here.)

Pilot programs see varying impact
The city of Minneapolis' 500 Under 5 program targeted services to 1,000 young children and their families in two northside neighborhoods. It included parent education and connecting families to high-quality early childhood programs. It had created an expectation with the families and targeted neighborhoods that the program would run through 2011.

The MELF cuts sent staff scrambling. A letter for the 500 Under 5 leadership team called it "a significant setback."

Maureen Seiwert, a member of the leadership team, said with belt tightening, more in-kind support from partners and other changes, the budget is almost balanced for 2009. "We have no guarantee after that," said Seiwert, executive director for early childhood education for Minneapolis Public Schools.

It does not appear that the new infusion of MELF money will help 500 Under 5 or Wayzata's Caring for Kids Initiative. They both plan to seek funding from other foundations.

MELF also cut innovation grants, ending five projects earlier than scheduled. They included Anoka Community Action' s home visiting program and Joyce Preschool's program to expand supports for Spanish-speaking families.

The early childhood rollercoaster
There is a long history of early childhood research, starting with Perry Preschool, that suggests early childhood education pays for itself in the long run. Rolnick has written about it, too.

There have been many initiatives to bolster early childhood programs. United Way first started working on Success by Six in the late 1980s. In 1991 the Minnesota Business Partnership issued an Education Agenda for Minnesota stating: "A strong and effective early childhood development program must be included as a part of the mission of the state's education system." Later in the 1990s Minneapolis tried Neighborhood Early Learning Centers (never quite lived up to expectations). In 2002 Hennepin County issued its "Ready to Read and Succeed" report (never got traction).

The list goes on. State data (reported by MELF) says that only about half the kids who entered kindergarten in 2007 were ready for school.

Is MELF just one more example of early childhood education's roller coaster of money and initiatives?

Rolnick remains optimistic. "We will show such incredible results that as the economy improves this will be a high priority," he said. "We are going to bring a proposal to create a permanent $1.5 billion endowment that would permanently fund these kinds of programs."

As Rolnick sees it, Minnesota is still a wealthy state, producing more than $220 billion annually in gross state product. He suggests a 5-year capital campaign. The state kicks a half billion. The Obama administration has proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants; that should be good for another half billion. And he's almost sure the private sector will contribute matching money.

"We can easily afford an endowment like this," Rolnick said. "We found $400 million for the Twins. … Let's talk about priorities well before we consider funding another stadium."

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