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Don’t let the legislative clock run out on early learning — there’s still time to do more

After a decade of relying heavily on private and federal funds, Minnesota’s public-sector leaders now must step up in a bigger way.

The time is now. After years of appeals to ensure that our state’s early learners have access to quality education before kindergarten, we’ve made great strides. However, we must press on. Building a durable, targeted early education system to narrow the achievement gap requires steady focus. As with other parts of Minnesota’s education continuum, building a world-class early education system requires continual investment and steady leadership.

Sarah Caruso

The public-private partnership we have seen in Minnesota to improve our early education system has been truly remarkable. In 2011, the philanthropic community helped the state apply for and receive a four-year $45 million federal Race to the Top Grant. These monies were aimed at strengthening Minnesota’s early childhood delivery system by expanding the Parent Aware Quality Rating and Improvement System and moving it from four pilot communities to a statewide program, and pilot testing scholarships in four diverse areas across the state.

However, the clock has run out on the four-year federal grant. It ends after this year. The public side of the partnership must now play a more central role.

Due to our strong belief in the paramount importance of early education in narrowing Minnesota’s achievement gap, we have funded quality improvement, targeted Early Learning Scholarships, and conducted rigorous evaluation and oversight to ensure effectiveness and efficiency.

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When leaders in other states hear about the extraordinary level of private support we have in Minnesota for early education programs, they’re in awe. So are we. 

Significant progress

These efforts are paying off. Thanks to the Parent Aware quality rating and improvement system, more than 2,500 child care and early education programs of all types and sizes are now adopting kindergarten-readiness best practices. Those programs benefit more than 36,000 Minnesota children annually in every part of Minnesota. That benefit will live on year after year.

An example of private investment, Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Childcare Accreditation Program (CAP) invested $3 million over the past three years to support 300 local child care centers in attaining national accreditation and 3 or 4 Star Parent Aware ratings. These centers serve more than 18,000 low income children annually. In rural Minnesota, Blandin Foundation is well into its second 10-year commitment of $20 million in private investment toward strengthening the quality of and access to early childhood programs in Itasca County.

Kathy Annette

Academic achievement and disparities gaps are all too real for our state; we’re in the position to address this issue and in doing so, we’re seeing results. For vulnerable children, access to quality early learning programs can change life trajectories. A recent evaluation of Parent Aware-rated programs demonstrated children making significant gains across kindergarten-readiness measures, both academic and nonacademic.

In recent years, it appeared as though the “public” aspect of the public-private partnership was committed to building something truly special for Minnesota children: The Dayton administration did an excellent job in 2013 of making Parent Aware statewide. By 2015, a bipartisan group of legislators and the governor enacted a budget that included the largest early education investment in state history.

We were hopeful at the start of the 2016 legislative session, believing the momentum of previous years would be maintained. Following the 2015 session, Dayton stressed, “We’re going to keep making (early education) the priority of my administration and everything else is going to have to take second place and not precede it.” Hours before the start of the session, an impressive bipartisan group of legislators announced their sponsorship of the ABC Act (“A Better Chance Act”), which would help more Minnesota children benefit from Parent Aware. But the progress appears to have come to a halt.

Nearly 90 percent of eligible low-income Minnesota children – the kids most likely to fall into the achievement gap – can’t access early learning programs because of insufficient state funding.

Time and money are running out

Minnesota’s private-sector leaders are up to the challenge to turn that around and we’ll continue to have a dedicated supportive role in years to come. However, after a decade of relying heavily on private and federal funds, Minnesota’s public-sector leaders now must step up in a bigger way.

Time and money are running out. Let’s close the education achievement gap for those entering kindergarten by ensuring the Parent Aware Quality rating system continues to expand across the state and that more of our most vulnerable children have access to high quality early learning programs. The private sector half of this partnership is committed to doing its part.

Find out more about collaborative statewide early learning initiatives here and here

Sarah Caruso is president and CEO of Greater Twin Cities United Way. Kathy Annette is president and CEO of Blandin Foundation.


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