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A decade of research proves early learning scholarships work

Currently, we’re only able to give about 5,700 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds scholarships. That leaves about 15,300 3- to 4-year-olds without access to high-quality learning environments.

The Early Learning Scholarships Program that the Legislature is considering for expansion this year may be the most extensively, locally researched early education tool in Minnesota’s history. Nearly a decade’s worth of encouraging research findings should be very comforting to policymakers making investment decisions this year.

Terry Barreiro

Here’s how scholarships work. Low-income parents are given scholarships, and are allowed to choose any program that is using kindergarten-readiness best practices, as identified by the Parent Aware Ratings. And those best practices are based on decades of national research. More than 2,000 of these high-quality programs can be found in Minnesota schools, centers, homes, churches and nonprofit organizations across the state. A website featuring Parent Aware rated programs makes it easy for parents to learn about their options and choose one that best fits their home and work locations and schedules needs based on location, schedule, teaching approach, and other factors. If a parent’s job or residence changes, parents can take the scholarship to a new rated provider that fits their new situation, so the child’s learning doesn’t get interrupted, and paperwork is kept to a minimum.

Scholarships are targeted to children from low-income homes. That has to be our priority because Minnesota’s education achievement gap is one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Low-income children are at high risk of falling into the achievement gap, and their parents are unable to afford high-quality early education programs. The achievement gap is evident before age 2, so we have to start combatting it in those early years.

A decade of exciting findings

We don’t have to guess whether scholarships work, because the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) and other nonprofits have spent millions of dollars to have independent researchers evaluate them. What the evaluations have found is very exciting for those of us focused on narrowing the achievement gap.

Scholarships move kids into quality. The MELF evaluation found that scholarships greatly improved access to high-quality programs, those using best practices for school readiness. Prior to receiving a scholarship, the majority of children (57 percent) were being served in unlicensed care, which are programs where health, safety and education standards are not monitored by anyone. After receiving a scholarship, all (100 percent) children were attending a high-quality program that was proving that it was using best practices related to health, safety and kindergarten-readiness.

But getting children into high-quality programs was just the beginning. We also needed to know if these high-quality programs could make a difference.

Kindergarten readiness improves. The MELF evaluation also found that children attending Parent Aware rated programs (100 percent of scholarship recipients) showed significant gains in a number of kindergarten readiness measures, such as expressive and receptive vocabulary, phonological awareness, print knowledge and social competence.

From an achievement-gap perspective, it’s even more encouraging that the MELF evaluation found that low-income children made greater language and literacy progress than the full sample of children. In other words, scholarships helped narrow the readiness gap.

The term “life changing” gets tossed around a lot in the nonprofit world, but these scholarships are truly life-changing.

Invest more in proven scholarship model

Because of these exciting findings, Gov. Mark Dayton embraced scholarships and Parent Aware as the centerpiece of his successful $45 million federal Race to the Top grant application. That grant allowed the expansion of the approach statewide, bringing new and important tools to parents living outside urban areas. It also is focusing national attention on the Minnesota approach. Legislators of both parties and the business community have been supportive of Dayton’s expansion.

Plus, the systems are already in place to effectively manage scholarships and have been tested for over seven years. Expanding to reach more low-income children with scholarships takes advantage of this efficiently run public-private collaboration.

More funding is needed

With all of this success there still is a problem we’ve identified about scholarships: There simply aren’t nearly enough of them. Currently, we’re only able to give about 5,700 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds scholarships. That leaves about 15,300 3- to 4-year-olds without access to high-quality learning environments.

The lack of adequate scholarship funds leaves tens of thousands of children aged 4 and under without access to high-quality learning environments. Research shows that the most at-risk children often need more than a single year of high-quality early education to get prepared for kindergarten, so the earlier we can help these children the better.

After all of this expensive and thorough research, Minnesota now needs to move forward to reach many more of those who can most benefit. We know scholarships work, and can address the roots of the achievement gap. We need to get more of these scholarships improving the lives our most vulnerable children.

Why do I support this?

I believe in this approach. I have been an advocate for reforming how early childhood education happens in our state since the late 1980s. I began as senior director at United Way of Minneapolis, working with a collaborative team of officials from Mayor Don Fraser’s office, educators from the University of Minnesota and leaders from Honeywell, including then-CEO Jim Renier. Our goal was to develop and support the best effective early childhood education strategies whether locally grown or located in other parts of the country. That began the development of a comprehensive system of quality early childhood and parent education services that is in place today.

I left my position at United Way over a decade ago but continued since then as a volunteer working to ensure our youngest children are all given the best chances to start school ready to learn. I now sit on the board of directors of Parent Aware for School Readiness, a time-limited organization committed to establishing some of the last key elements needed for a multifaceted and comprehensive system. One of those elements is to see a vibrant scholarship program that ensures access for all to quality early childhood programs.

Terri Barreiro is an adjunct instructor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

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