When Minnesota was awarded a $45 million federal Race to the Top (RTT) grant in December 2011 to improve our pre-kindergarten early-education outcomes, we celebrated. As a member on the board of a business-oriented nonprofit that had piloted the reforms embodied in the proposal, I joined in toasting the achievement.
The news was well worth a party. After all, up to 90 percent of brain development happens by age 5, making the pre-kindergarten years a key time to have children in stimulating learning environments. At a time when nearly half of Minnesota children are not prepared for kindergarten, we clearly need to improve our state’s pre-kindergarten early-education offerings. We need to do it for the sake of our kids, and to protect our future economy.
But while a lot of people remember that $45 million RTT grant, fewer remember the specific pledges we made to make the party possible.
The extent to which we keep and sustain the RTT pledges we made to the Obama administration will largely determine the extent to which we are able to help more kids get ready for kindergarten. Here is where we stand:
Many of the pledges we made in our RTT application have already been kept.
For instance, we have already given scholarships to low-income children to help them access high-quality early education. These pre-K scholarships are already changing children’s lives.
We already have accelerated the process of expanding the Parent Aware Ratings, which help parents find the child-care and early-education providers in their community using kindergarten-readiness best practices. Parent Aware will be available statewide by 2015, and hundreds of providers have already volunteered to get rated.
The Legislature is also participating in the reform movement. In legislation being shaped right now by the 2013 Legislature, policymakers are linking new pre-K scholarship investments to the Parent Aware Ratings. Again, that policy is consistent with the promises Minnesota made to the Obama administration in its RTT grant.
Scholarships. Ratings. Reforming new funding streams. These are big, important RTT promises we made to kids, taxpayers and funders, and I’m proud to report that our state leaders are keeping them.
Promises to keep
But our work is not done. Our RTT grant application not only pledged that we would link new scholarship funding to the Parent Aware Ratings, we also indicated that we would work to link Minnesota’s existing Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to the ratings.
This is important. After all, CCAP funding is currently flowing to child-care providers who are not using kindergarten-readiness best practices. In a state where nearly half of the children are not ready for kindergarten, that is just not acceptable.
And it’s clearly not OK with Minnesota taxpayers. A 2010 survey found that an overwhelming 73 percent of Minnesotans agree that “we should only allow tax dollars to be spent on early childhood education providers who have proven they are effective in preparing children for kindergarten.”
Dayton’s reimbursement-bonus plan
In his budget proposal, Gov. Mark Dayton recommended a way to begin the process of transitioning CCAP from a child-care-only program to a child-care program that also is focused on school-readiness goals. The governor proposed that providers who attain a high Parent Aware Rating be given a CCAP reimbursement bonus.
A bipartisan group led by state Sens. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, and Patricia Torres-Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, also has proposed that this transition toward linking CCAP with highly rated Parent Aware programs be completed by 2020. That’s a good idea, and the governor’s CCAP bonus proposal is an important first step in making that transition.
So far, neither the State House nor Senate has adopted the governor’s proposal.
A big carrot
Compared to scholarships and Ratings, CCAP formula reform is admittedly not very sexy. But make no mistake, CCAP reform is one of the most important pieces of the early education puzzle. By rewarding thousands of providers who volunteer to improve their early education quality, we will greatly increase the number of providers in every corner of Minnesota using kindergarten-readiness best practices to prepare our kids for the future. With almost $200 million invested in CCAP annually, this is a big carrot, which will reward a lot of providers for moving in the right direction.
Of the pledges Minnesota made in its RTT application, CCAP reform remains the big piece of unfinished business. This is the year we need to keep this pledge to our federal funders, taxpayers and kids.
Michael V. Ciresi is chairman of the board for the nonprofit organization Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR) and the Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi Foundation for Children. He is also a Partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P.
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