The case for investing in early education is simple and powerful: Up to 90 percent of brain development occurs before age 5, making the pre-kindergarten years a crucial time to have kids in stimulating learning environments.
Currently, however, Minnesota is not doing nearly as well as it should. Almost half of Minnesota kids currently are not prepared for kindergarten. When too many of those children don’t catch up in subsequent grades, Minnesota kids, taxpayers and employers pay a huge price, in both economic and human terms.
Therefore, Gov. Mark Dayton proposes to invest a relatively small amount to improve pre-K early education in order to improve the return-on-investment Minnesota taxpayers receive on the $7 billion we annually invest in K-12 education. The business community, progressive groups, and a diverse group of legislators have applauded the governor’s proposal.
Get the details right
Now that Dayton has proposed this important idea, those of us in the Legislature need to get the details right. First, we need to target scholarships to low-income kids, where the need is greatest. We also need to link scholarships to the Parent Aware Ratings, to ensure tax dollars go to providers using early learning best practices, where the return-on-investment is the strongest.
Finally, we need to empower parents by allowing them to select from the full range of rated programs, be they home-based, center-based, church-based, school-based, or Head Starts. This model empowers families to find the providers that can fit their individual scheduling, location, transportation, price and cultural needs. It also gives all types of providers an equal opportunity to benefit from scholarships.
If the Legislature gets this right, Minnesota will have done something extraordinarily important and lasting for the next generation of Minnesotans. But perhaps the least understood and most advantage is this: A relatively small investment in scholarships can leverage an enormous improvement in early education quality.
Here’s how: Let’s say a child-care provider who is currently caring for 15 children decides she wants to improve her early-education quality in order to attract the business of scholarship recipients. So, she works with a state-funded quality improvement coach, receives a quality improvement grant, and adopts a series of early-education best practices – more training, better learning materials, improved teaching methods. This quality improvement then allows the provider to win the business of a family receiving a scholarship.
Helping one child helps many more
Obviously the scholarship-incented quality improvement at the child-care program has an enormous benefit for child receiving the scholarship. The scholarship child has been moved from a low-quality learning environment into a rich learning environment that is stimulating that child’s rapidly growing brain. But beyond that, the quality improvements also benefit every other child in the provider’s program.
In other words, the public investment in one scholarship helps 16 Minnesota children receive a higher quality early education. What’s more, those scholarship-incented quality-improvement benefits are subsequently accrued year after year, ultimately benefiting scores of additional children cared for by that provider.
This, in fact, is precisely how the scholarship model has already played out on a small scale in Minnesota. A pilot campaign in several Minnesota communities used just 650 scholarships, but improved early-education quality for over 24,000 kids.
Let’s set sights even higher
So by all means, let’s enact Dayton’s proposed early learners’ scholarships. In fact, let’s work together to see if we can find a way to use early-education scholarships to move all of the 35,000 low-income Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds currently on public program waiting lists, or in low-quality care, into high-quality learning environments. A proposal put forward this year by MinneMinds, a broad coalition of Minnesota nonprofit and business groups, to fund $150 million in pre-K scholarships linked to the Parent Aware Ratings would be an important step in this direction.
Investing in the governor’s scholarship model will not only will revolutionize the lives of the low-income kids currently being left behind; it will also deliver quality improvement that will benefit millions of other Minnesota children over the years to come.
Rep. Ryan Winkler is a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from Golden Valley, and a father of three young children.
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