After raising my five children in North St. Paul, and now watching my grandchildren grow up, ensuring all youngsters have access to quality early education has never been more important. My grandchildren act as the perfect reminder that we are working on budgets and fighting for bills that could make a big difference in the world they grow up in.
In the last week there has been a lot of press about the Senate, House and governor’s differing education proposals. There appears to be some confusion about the Senate’s $65 million investment into the School Readiness preschool model. Our new program, “Great Start School Readiness,” will build on the successes of the School Readiness model and expand it to include education opportunities for all Minnesota 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds with a risk factor such as qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Some have reported that the Senate’s Great Start model isn’t free; this is false. Others say the Senate has no early-education provisions; again not true. Although the Senate’s plan differs from the governor’s, I share his vision of expanding early-childhood education.
The U.S. Department of Education recently released a study showing how states were doing when it comes to early education. The results were sobering. Only 15 percent of Minnesota 4-year-olds were attending a public preschool program, ranking us close to the bottom. We can do so much better than this. We also know schools have waiting lists for kids to get into School Readiness programs. The Senate chose to invest in the Great Start model to alleviate these waiting lists, and to provide affordable pre-K programming for all Minnesotans.
A tested and proven model
The School Readiness model is a tested and proven early childhood education program. We know it works. It’s also more flexible, because the dollars can be used by public schools to implement pre-K programs or contract with community-based pre-K programs to deliver services. The Senate supports this “mixed-delivery system” approach.
While I would like to expand early learning opportunities even more, my budget target of $361.5 million required me to choose a path that was financially realistic. Deciding to invest $65 million into the Great Start plan that we know to be both successful and flexible is a balanced approach, while still putting money into the basic formula, and giving schools a needed increase to their per-pupil dollars.
The School Readiness model we invested in requires programs to offer at least 500 hours of programming per year, but they get to choose how they structure those hours. Whether it’s an all-day program one or two days a week, or just mornings three or four days a week, it’s up to them. Programs will also be required to test for student progress.
Provides districts with flexibility and control
Our Great Start investment will reach thousands more Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds, significantly increasing the enrollment and hours of instruction from prior years. Districts frequently ask for more local control, more choice for their parents to make decisions that best suit their families. The Great Start School Readiness model gives school districts across the state the flexibility and control they have asked for.
Over the last 24 years Minnesota has gradually built the framework to expand the School Readiness model. This framework includes requiring programs to have teachers who are knowledgeable with early-childhood curriculum, staff ratios of 1 to 10 students and maximum class sizes of 20. Additionally, the program mandates a phased-in licensure component, requiring teachers to have a license by the 2019-2020 school year.
I have visited sites that use school readiness dollars to teach little 4-year-olds to prepare them for kindergarten. I’ve spoken with teachers and parents, who have shared their stories of success. Research from Maryland shows that kindergarten teachers consistently rank School Readiness graduates as more advanced in imagination and creativity, and that graduates demonstrate initiative and retain learning better than their peers who did not attend school readiness programming. The evidence is clear: The School Readiness model works, and all Minnesota children will benefit from the Great Start Senate proposal.
State Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, represents District 43, which includes the cities of Birchwood, Mahtomedi, Maplewood, North Saint Paul, Oakdale, White Bear Lake, and Willernie.
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