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Investing a relatively small amount in Parent Aware yields huge returns

The Parent Aware Ratings help parents find programs that are using kindergarten-readiness best practices.

We’ve all seen the value of a Swiss army knife, a multipurpose tool used for many different tasks. Well, the 10-year-old Parent Aware quality rating and improvement system is the multipurpose tool of the early-education world. It is amazing what it can do.

Todd Otis

For child-care and early-education programs that want to offer their families the best, Parent Aware is a quality improvement tool. Parent Aware coaches, grants and trainings help programs adopt kindergarten-readiness best practices. Already more than 2,500 programs in centers, schools, churches, homes and nonprofit organizations in every part of Minnesota have volunteered to adopt best practices.

For family child-care providers and other programs that have adopted best practices, Parent Aware is a powerful marketing tool. Rated programs are promoted through privately funded radio, television, online, print, outdoor and neighborhood ads. As a result, parents are increasingly aware of the ratings. Because 77 percent of those who are aware of the ads agree that “all parents should be asking questions about a child care program’s Parent Aware Rating,” rated programs derive a lot of benefit from that marketing.

A way to identify quality

For parents, Parent Aware is a shopping tool, a handy way to identify quality. The Parent Aware Ratings are a simple Consumer Reports-like ratings system that helps parents find programs that are using kindergarten-readiness best practices. The ratings search site ParentAware.org is getting over a million page views per year, and a recent survey found that 93 percent of Minnesotans find the ratings a useful service.

For children, Parent Aware is a brain development tool. At a time of life when up to 90 percent of brain development is happening, Parent Aware gives children the stimulating learning environment they need. A recent evaluation found that children attending Parent Aware rated early care and education programs are making significant gains on kindergarten-readiness measures, such as early math skills; phonological and print awareness; expressive vocabulary; executive function; social competence and persistence.

For taxpayers, Parent Aware is an investment-boosting tool. Parents may only use Early Learning Scholarships in Parent Aware-rated programs, helping ensure that taxpayers receive a double-digit return on investment. Parent Aware is key to the success of these scholarship investments because high returns are only available when helping low-income children access high quality programs.

For equity champions, Parent Aware is an opportunity creator. Parent Aware builds the supply of high-quality early care and education programs available to help low-income scholarship recipient children catch up to their more privileged peers, and ultimately narrow the K-12 achievement gap that threatens Minnesota’s collective future.

Provides accountability

For policymakers, Parent Aware is an accountability tool. Just as state leaders require private construction firms building our roads and bridges to adhere to quality standards, Parent Aware provides a quality control tool to ensure we get the most out of taxpayers’ annual investment early care and education investment of more than $350 million.

Quality improvement tool. Marketing tool. Shopping tool. Brain development tool. Investment tool. Opportunity creation tool. Accountability tool. At a time when almost half of Minnesota children start kindergarten behind, and too many never catch up, Parent Aware is a critically important multitool to have available.

But here is the problem: Federal funding for Parent Aware largely ends this year. A federal “Race to the Top” start-up grant is expiring, and can’t be renewed. To obtain that start-up grant, state leaders committed to sustaining Parent Aware beyond the grant period. After July 1, the Parent Aware budget will shrink to about $5 million. It will take $15 million annually to maintain and grow the number of high-quality early education programs available to Minnesota kids.

Minnesotans spend over $1.5 billion per year on child care and early education for children ages 0-5. This spending comes out of the pockets of parents and in the form of taxpayer support that helps low-income children access programming, like the Early Learning Scholarships. Investing 1 percent of that amount to maximize that investment is one of the best things Minnesota leaders can do for Minnesota taxpayers, early care and education programs, and most important, our children.

Todd Otis is a former DFL member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and DFL state chair, and is currently senior vice president for external relations of Think Small, a nonprofit organization.

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