Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices is generously supported by The Minneapolis Foundation; learn why.

In early education, quality should be Minnesota’s first priority

Well-intentioned child-care champions sometimes fall into a mantra when it comes to improving early education in Minnesota  —  “invest more.”  We wholeheartedly support their goal, but Minnesota needs to first invest more wisely before it invests mo

Well-intentioned child-care champions sometimes fall into a mantra when it comes to improving early education in Minnesota  —  “invest more.”  We wholeheartedly support their goal, but Minnesota needs to first invest more wisely before it invests more.

Those who advocate for more investment in early learning frequently point to a return-on-investment (ROI) study done by Art Rolnick when he was at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. The Fed study estimates that every $1 invested in high-quality early learning yields up to $16 to society.

Pointing to this research, child-care champions say, if we spend more the school readiness problem will be solved.

If only it were that easy. It is critically important to understand that the Fed’s ROI study assumes “high quality” early learning settings. That is, it assumes investment only in settings where young children are successfully being prepared for kindergarten.

Therefore, spending money on child care that is not preparing children for kindergarten doesn’t deliver the ballyhooed 16-to-1 ROI. Worse, there is actually some evidence that lower-quality care can actually set children’s progress back.

Half are not being prepared for school
So, quality is a key prerequisite. Minnesota’s first and most pressing need is to improve the quality of Minnesota’s early-learning offerings. Considering that half of Minnesota children currently are not being prepared for school, we obviously have our work cut out for us.

How can we improve the quality of Minnesota’s early education?  Our Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) Board has been focused on that question for the past five years, and recently made a series of policy recommendations to the new Legislature and governor.

Our centerpiece recommendation for improving quality is to identify and label quality, so parents and taxpayers are empowered to use that information in their investment decisions. Specifically, we recommend bringing the Parent Aware Ratings to all parts of Minnesota. These new ratings, which were developed as a pilot project of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, focus on school-readiness best practices. Each provider earns a one- to four-star rating, depending on the extent to which they are using best practices.

After the Parent Aware Ratings are put in place to identify and label quality, it is imperative that we do a much better job rewarding quality.

Coaching proved very useful to providers
First, we recommend that all providers who volunteer to be rated by Parent Aware be rewarded with coaching from early-learning experts. This helps providers learn exactly what it will take to improve their quality, and their Parent Aware Rating. In MELF pilot projects, this coaching proved very useful to providers, and we need to bring that service statewide.

We also recommend that providers who volunteer be rated become eligible for the $400 million that is spent in Minnesota helping low-income children access child care, including the new Early Learning Scholarships we recommend. Those who don’t volunteer to be rated would not be eligible for public funding.

Beyond public funding, we recommend that the Parent Aware Ratings be marketed to parents spending their own money in the child-care market, so that rated providers are rewarded with the business of parents who value school readiness quality. With $1.2 billion in private funding spent by Minnesota parents every year, this is an especially enticing reward for high-quality providers.

We also recommend that the Legislature reward early-learning professionals who improve their education and training, as well as donors who support quality improvement, access to high quality. These rewards would come in the form of a new Train and Retain Tax Credit and a new Early Learners’ Hero Tax Credit.

Non-governmental efforts important as well
Beyond those changes in public policy, what is the role of the non-governmental sector in all of this?  If the MELF reforms are enacted by the Legislature, we will be forming a Parent Aware Promotions Board to raise non-governmental money to promote the ratings to parents, and ensure the ratings standards are not weakened.

The common thread running through all of these MELF reform proposals is school-readiness quality. Those who commit themselves to quality need to be rewarded for their commitment. When those rewards are put into place by the Minnesota Legislature in 2011, we have absolutely no doubt that dedicated and innovative Minnesotans will step up.

Does Minnesota also need to spend more money on early learning? We believe it does. But Minnesota must first reform the early-education system, so that all of our resources are focused on high quality. 

Aiming our resources toward quality will ensure that our investments are yielding the highest rate of return possible, and build public support for the necessary level of investment.

Ultimately, more investment in early education probably is necessary. But as the automobile commercial used to say, quality is job one.

Peg Birk is president and CEO of Interim Solutions. Ted Staryk is a partner at CNote Management and a member of the McKnight Foundation Board of Directors. Both are members of the MELF Board of Directors.