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Setting the record straight on early education claims

The net result of Dayton’s proposed shift is this: If UPK is enacted, about 70,000 low-income children between zero and 3 years old – the children most likely to fall into the achievement gap – would be left without access to high-quality early education.

In a recent MinnPost article (“Early-ed advocates look at Dayton’s preschool plan and wonder: Why?”) about the early education debate at the state Capitol, several assertions were made by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) that require clarification. State leaders deserve to have accurate information as they make decisions involving billions of dollars and thousands of young lives.

Ericca Maas

The article mentioned a frequent claim of MDE officials that Early Learning Scholarships for low-income children would “double” as a result of its budget proposal. That simply is not true.

A shift in category, not more funding

The MDE proposal recommends a shift from one category of scholarships – “Pathway II” scholarships, which are controlled by school districts and other providers – to another category of scholarships: “Pathway I” scholarships, which are controlled by low-income parents. This is a shift in administrative rules that results in a doubling of Pathway I scholarships, and an end to the Pathway II scholarship approach.

However, and this is critically important to understand, this shift toward the Pathway I model would result in no new funding, and no increase in the number of scholarship recipients.

Despite the “doubled” claim, this is the bottom line of the proposal: Over the next four years, MDE has proposed $0 in new funding for scholarships for low-income children, and $1.25 billion for a universal pre-K (UPK) program that goes to families of all incomes, including wealthier families. That reflects a seismic shift in Minnesota’s early education strategy.

The net result of the proposed shift is this: If UPK is enacted, about 70,000 low-income children between zero and 3 years old – the children most likely to fall into the achievement gap – would be left without access to high-quality early education.

School-centric barriers baked in

An MDE official said that school districts “may contract with community partners, tap local parks systems or locate within schools.” That’s technically true, but it’s important for leaders to understand that such contracting would be a very rare occurrence, because of two elements of the administration’s proposal.

First, the UPK funds are earmarked for, and controlled by, school districts. In the past, school districts have tended to keep all or the vast majority of the state funding that flows into their coffers.

Second, even if districts were willing to fund non-school-based programs, the proposal makes such arrangements nearly impossible. Even highly rated Parent Aware providers would be ineligible to receive funds unless they take steps that go beyond Parent Aware, such as a requirement to use licensed teachers.

In other words, the administration’s UPK proposal does technically allow districts to fund other programs, but the school-centric barriers baked in to the proposal effectively would lead to a schools-only mandate, or something very close to a mandate.

Scaling up requires ‘all hands on deck’

An MDE official noted that, “it’s been difficult to scale the infrastructure around the state.” It is certainly true that Minnesota needs more high-quality early education programs. We don’t have enough school-based programs, or enough non-school-based programs.

Given that challenge, scholarships are a much more versatile tool than a schools-only earmark. After all, scholarships can be used at both school and non-school programs, while universal pre-K proposals only tap into the school side of the equation. An expanded scholarship model would bring a badly needed “all hands on deck” element to the scaling challenge MDE describes.

Finally, the article quoted an MDE official saying the administration was proposing that the Parent Aware program be funded at $8 million, presumably meaning $8 million over every two-year budget period. The actual amount in the administration’s proposal is $4.6 million every two years, which constitutes a large reduction from the current Race to the Top Parent Aware spending level, which would translate to $18 million per biennium.

Parent Aware helps early education providers adopt kindergarten-readiness best practices. Gov. Mark Dayton wisely expanded the program statewide in 2011. More than 2,000 providers have already volunteered for the program, and many more are joining every week. Most importantly, a pilot project evaluation found that children in Parent Aware-rated programs showed significant gains in kindergarten-readiness measures, such as expressive and receptive vocabulary, phonological awareness, print knowledge and social competence. Unfortunately, if the administration’s proposed reduction is what passes the Legislature, the state’s ability to grow the number of quality programs will slow dramatically.

This reduction in a proven quality-improvement program is ironic, given MDE’s comments about the need for more high-quality programs. Regardless of what happens with 4-year-olds, Minnesota will still need a strong Parent Aware program to grow the number of quality early learning options available to young children. This is no time to be reducing Parent Aware from $18 million per biennium to $4.6 million per biennium.

Devil is in the details

There is much at stake in this debate, and these are not small issues. Some of these issues may seem esoteric, but the details will have a profound future impact on Minnesota’s persistent education achievement gap.

If we’re serious about that achievement gap, we must get the details right, and help low-income children first, not last.

Ericca Maas is the executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR), a nonprofit organization focused on kindergarten-readiness. 

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