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Minnesota gets good news on federal funding to help state's 'littlest learners'

The moral of this story: ’Tis definitely better to receive.

This morning, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that Minnesota is one of nine states that will get up to $100 million each to create high-quality pre-kindergarten systems for disadvantaged kids.

The maximum Minnesota is eligible for is $50 million over four years. Officials did not release award amounts at this morning’s White House press conference, but local early-ed insiders said they’e heard the state will receive $45 million to $50 million.

The other winners are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.

“They’re creating high-quality early-learning systems,” Sebelius said of the winning states. “By pushing everyone to raise their game, we intend to increase the quality of early education from coast to coast.”

“This grant was the result of an extraordinary public-private partnership and reflects the Dayton Administration’s strong commitment toward providing every child with access to high-quality early learning programs," said state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “This collaboration showed Minnesota’s 'can-do' spirit at its best.”

“We’re ecstatic,” said Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), which spearheaded some of the key initiatives that landed the grant. “Now we can get more kids ready for kindergarten.”

In October, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and 35 states applied for a slice of $500 million in federal Race to the Top grants for the pre-kindergarten systems.

Still smarting from the wholesale trouncing the state got in the first RTTT competition for part of $4 billion in K-12 education reform dollars, Minnesota policymakers drew up a 700-page application complete with 48 appendices that dotted every I in the feds’ playbook and crossed a few T’s for good measure.

Specific feedback from the applications’ reviewers is not yet public, but it’s probably a safe bet that two factors helped push Minnesota’s application (PDF) to the head of the pack.

The first: A five-year effort by MELF, a high-profile, bipartisan consortium of policymakers and business leaders, to define high-quality care, prove its achievement-gap-closing value and figure out how to steer fragile families with public child-care subsidies toward top providers.

The second: An equally unprecedented effort to show Duncan the depth and breadth of support early ed enjoys among Minnesotans. In addition to the aforementioned educators, business leaders and policy types, the state’s grant application was endorsed by entities ranging from law enforcement to the state historical society. 

RTTT grants are one-time funds (PDF), so creating an infrastructure that will support itself going forward is an optimal use.

Still, as public policy sagas go, the quest to focus resources on Minnesota’s littlest learners has been a nail-biter.

When the year started, it seemed as if the one effort that was a shoo-in at the Capitol was support for early ed. Ideological foes were in lockstep on the state’s need to invest in its workforce by making sure impoverished kids start kindergarten ready to learn.

Plus, while lawmakers wouldn’t have new money to play with absent a tax hike, there were plenty of policy freebies that would give pre-K a significant boost.

One was a formal seat at the education policy table, something Gov. Mark Dayton proposed to do by granting Cassellius responsibility for overseeing all state early-ed efforts and naming an Early Learning Council to advise her.

The other was the statewide expansion of MELF’s five-year pilot programa rating system that identifies high-quality early-ed programs and guides families that rely on private scholarships and public child-care subsidies toward the best.

Persuaded by research showing that every dollar the state invests in top-notch early childhood education returns $16 to the economy, MELF’s private-sector boosters put up $20 million to create ratings and study their impact.

Among the findings: Test scores rose and mobility virtually disappeared among children enrolled in St. Paul programs that participated in the pilot phase of “Parent Aware.”

Despite bipartisan support, legislation to expand the ratings system statewide died a middle-of-the-night death, halfway through the session, reportedly because of fears it would literally create a “nanny state.”

State House leaders have never publicly explained what happened, but advocates working on the issue say that following lobbying by a religious-right organization with ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann, the GOP’s Tea Party wing threatened to withhold support from the omnibus education bill if it contained support for early ed.

In the crush of the state shutdown, lawmakers also failed to repeal the laws authorizing MELF’s pilot. And so in August, days before the release of RTTT’s application parameters, Dayton issued an executive order expanding Parent Aware. The governor also named 22 people to the Early Learning Council he created by executive order earlier in the year.

The coup de grâce: All of the data painstakingly amassed during the pilot showing the correlation between provider training and good care, good care and kindergarten readiness and preparedness and academic achievement in later life gave Minnesota an avalanche of data to deliver to Duncan. 

And some quick work by MinnCAN, a broad-based advocacy coalition working on the early-ed issue, generated strong statements of support from an array of community members who spoke to the relationship among poor child care and crime, unemployment and dependency on costly services.

“Minnesota’s model, Parent Aware, is unique in that it points to outcomes,” said MinnCAN Executive Director Vallay Varro. “We have a clear vision.”

A second round of grants will be made next year.

“It was a team effort to get everything together,” said Benson. “I just can’t say enough about the number of people who threw their backs into this.”

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Comments (4)

This is wonderful. A piece of good news, among a spate of bad. This is where we need to start, with the best we can do.

This truly is huge. Few people realize th state only fun kindergartners at .53 of a real person in the pupil formula, and preK not at all. Poor kids who cannot read at level by just third grade are thirteen times as likely to drop out as a good reader.

groups as diverse as MinnCan, teachers unions, principals unions, and school district adminitrators have been pushing for preK funding and all day K funding. We have a huge achievement gap and fifty percent of our kids enter school not ready to learn. This is huge. now if the state can just get on board.

Good news indeed, for the most part.

However, since grant money like this is one-time money, even if we create the infrastructure and policies to support a pre-K framework of really effective providers, it’ll need future funding, and in that context, what’s to prevent the ideologues on the right from doing the same sort of lunatic hostage-holding that took place this year, again and again, year after year?

The obvious answer would include legislators who realize the “bang for the buck” of early childhood education, and/or are not the intellectual and political slaves of the right wing.

I would be jubilant about these results if the same GOPers who have fought funding preschool programs for years were not behind this. How will it affect Head Start programs? How will this rating program reach children who cannot afford to attend a formal preschool? Best practices only work when the children receive them. When the grants run out will the GOPers suddenly have a change of heart and provde enough public money to do the preschool job well?
The cynic in me is asking what is in this for them? There must be a profit somewhere because they sure never supported providing the money for existing programs that were working but needed additional funds to reach more children.