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MinneMinds makes the case for more state spending on poor kids

Broad coalition argues sending poor children to preschool pays off for state.

Almost 50 percent of Minnesota children start kindergarten unprepared to learn, according to a Minnesota Department of Education study released in spring 2010.
REUTERS/Gary Cameron

If you’re going to ask the Legislature for heaps of money to send poor children to preschool and otherwise help prepare them for kindergarten, it sure doesn’t hurt to give your coalition a name that pulls at the heart strings.

More than that, however, you have to stockpile the request with research explaining both the children’s needs as well as the gains to the state — how investing in our kids now means a better future not only for low-income children but also for Minnesota. 

Research like:

  • Almost 50 percent of Minnesota children start kindergarten unprepared to learn, according to a Minnesota Department of Education study released in spring 2010. That means “that before age 5, half the state’s future work force “is already behind the curve.’’
  • Every dollar invested to help children from low-income families receive high-quality early-learning programs means $16 saved down the line because these better-educated youngsters are more likely to graduate from high school and college, more likely to get decent-paying jobs and more likely to stay out of prison, according to a 2003 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Presenting a strong argument for a $185.2 million investment over the biennium for the education of low-income 3- and 4-year-old children is exactly what the group MinneMinds – pronounced minnie-minds – will do at a gathering today aimed at catching the attention of lawmakers and spotlighting broad support.

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The money would come mostly in the form of scholarships and flow directly from state coffers to the high-quality child-care providers or preschools each parent chooses, explains Frank Forsberg, chairman of the MinneMinds Executive Committee and a vice president with Greater Twin Cities United Way.

Eligible would be 3- and 4-year-olds whose families are at or below 185 percent of the poverty line. One hundred percent of poverty, as defined by the federal government, is $23,050 for a family of four, so the program as proposed would include some “near poor” as well. 

MinneMinds is a statewide coalition of some 40 organizations and other coalitions including nonprofits, educators, business, unions, parents and religious groups.

“We are coming together on a belief that we can invest in our children. We are saying if we support them with this investment they will learn,’’ says Barbara Milon, a member of the MinneMinds Executive Committee and executive director of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in North Minneapolis.

Joining in their policy proposal presentation are influential legislators, mostly from the power-wielding DFL, but also including Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls, GOP lead on the Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee.

“In terms of the need, it’s there,’’ says Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL- Maplewood, who chairs the Early Childhood-12 Education Finance Committee. “At least a part of the request will make it to the finish line.’’

Wiger adds that more money for early childhood education for poor children, a group that includes large numbers of children of color, is also supported by state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. The governor will announce his budget recommendations later this month.

The program would start slowly and “ramp up,’’ Forsberg says, because currently the state does not have enough certified high-quality child-cares and preschools, either center-based or home-based. Expansion of a new quality-rating system for child care and preschool education is helping change the situation.

Early education reaps benefits, Milon stresses. Ninety-eight percent of the “graduates’’ of Wheatley’s Mary T. Wellcome Early Childhood Development in Minneapolis, established in the 1920s, pass kindergarten readiness assessments, compared to much lower readiness rates for other children of color in North Minneapolis who do not have such training, she says.

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Milon points to a 2011 report  from the African American Leadership Forum, which calls for better preschool education opportunities for poor African-American children as one crucial step toward closing the academic achievement gap between races.