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On early education, let the best idea win

This month, the Minnesota Legislature funded a school-based, universal, pre-K pilot program for 4-year olds. I was opposed to that approach, preferring a parent-driven scholarship program that starts earlier than age 4, with full-day programs targeted for the most at-risk children. But now that both programs will be in the state budget, let the competition of ideas and outcomes begin.

Art Rolnick

I give Gov. Mark Dayton a lot of credit for getting us to this point. First, his leadership was key to the statewide expansion of the so-called “Minnesota Model” of early education — the combination of Early Learning Scholarships with the Parent Aware program that was piloted and proven effective by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.

I also credit the governor for this year proposing a go-slow pilot approach for his pre-K program, which will allow time for a thoughtful third-party evaluation. After the pre-K model is piloted and evaluated — as the Minnesota Model was from 2006 to 2016 — state leaders can then have a well-informed debate about whether to expand the targeted Minnesota Model or the universal pre-K approach that is authorized under the new law.

These are a few of the important issues the Legislature should consider:

Can the new pre-K program drive kindergarten-readiness gains? This is an open question, and I look forward to learning from an evaluation of the new pre-K pilot program. According to the most rigorous and comprehensive evaluation of its type in state history, scholarships are a proven way to support low-income children’s access to programs that help them make significant kindergarten-readiness gains. Though there is room for all types of programs to improve, this is important progress. After evaluations are complete, we’ll see how pre-K outcomes compare.

Which children should be prioritized for limited funding? Should Minnesota leaders invest in a model that targets low-income children under age 5, or should it subsidize parents that can already afford high quality programs, as the new universal pre-K law will do in future years?

Advantage scholarships. The research is clear that there is an extraordinary public return when we invest in our most-at-risk children, as scholarships do, but there is no return associated with subsidizing early education for children of wealthier families, as universal pre-K will do. To narrow the achievement gap, we must prioritize the low-income children who can’t afford quality programs and are most at risk of falling into the achievement gap.

When is the best time to help at-risk children? Should we get the most at-risk children into high quality early learning programs as early in life as possible to narrow or prevent achievement gaps that can be measured prior to age one, or wait until age four to allow the achievement gap to grow perilously wide?

Advantage scholarships. The school-based pre-K program is only for 4-year-olds, while scholarships are flexible and can be used for quality programs at a younger age.

What’s the best way to stabilize unstable young lives? Should we fund policies that cut off early education services every time a child’s family changes jobs or homes, or use a “portable” approach that allows an uprooted family to immediately access new early learning programs in their new community, thus limiting the interruption to the child’s learning?

Advantage scholarships. Pathway I type scholarships are “portable” for families on the move, while the new pre-K pilot program is not.

Is full-day or part-day early education better? Should we offer the most vulnerable children the option of a full-day early education program with eight or more hours per day of services? Or should we limit it to a two- to three-hour per day program, which closes during the summer months, and therefore requires low-income families to arrange and pay for costly supplemental services?

Advantage scholarships. Scholarships offer low-income children a full dose of full-day early education, and that’s best for both those kids and their working parents.

How can we supply enough high quality early education? With a shortage of high quality early education programs in Minnesota limiting our ability to combat achievement gaps, should Minnesota policymakers allow any early education programs located in schools, centers, homes or non-profit organizations to serve low-income children, as long as they are using kindergarten-readiness best practices? Or should we effectively exclude those proven nonschool programs, while spending enormous amounts of money to build brand new school-based programs from scratch?

Advantage scholarships. Scholarships help us tap into quality programs that already exist, and bring “all hands on deck” to Minnesota’s achievement gap battle.

So, we now have a legislative horse race. While I feel strongly that the research favors a targeted, scholarship model over a universal, school-based model, some disagree. Here is hoping that state leaders will look at third-party evaluations of these two programs and have a well-informed debate about how best to invest our limited tax dollars.

Art Rolnick is the former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a current senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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