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What kind of early-education help do low-income parents want?

How about we listen to the people who can benefit the most from getting engaged in early education: low-income parents?

There is strong bipartisan agreement about the need to help young Minnesota children living in low-income families access high-quality early-education programs so that we can close our worst-in-the-nation opportunity gap in education. While there is an amazing amount of consensus about that overall need, policymakers are still discussing the type of help that is needed. 

Sondra Samuels

So here’s a radical idea: How about we listen to the people who can benefit the most from getting engaged in early education: low-income parents?

In the fall of 2016, Wilder Foundation researchers did exactly that. Using funding from the nonprofit organization Close Gaps by 5, Wilder conducted phone interviews of 240 low-income parents from all parts of Minnesota. About 46 percent of those interviewed were parents of color. Here is what those parents said.

Parents’ top priorities

Barb Fabre

When asked “which early education program features sticks in your mind as the single most important for you and your family?” two items rose to the top. The first most important feature parents named was full-day, full-year, multi-year services. The second was quality of care, in terms of a program’s ability to prepare children for kindergarten.

This is encouraging news, because the same features that parents want are, according to the best available research, also the things that children need to get ready for kindergarten.

Fortunately, Minnesota’s 9-year-old Early Learning Scholarship program delivers on both fronts.

Full-day, full-year, multi-year. Scholarships deliver what parents want and the research supports: full-day, full-year, multi-year options. More learning time starting earlier than the preschool years is best for our state's most vulnerable children needing additional support to catch up to their peers, and full-day, full-year hours are essential for low-income parents who work full-time or are trying hard to.

Quality. Scholarships also deliver on the program quality that parents put at the top of their priority list. Scholarships can only be used at early-education programs that require the use of kindergarten-readiness best practices, as measured by the Parent Aware Ratings.

Parents want scholarships

The Wilder survey found that low-income parents support other important aspects of scholarships. For example, 95 percent of low-income parents support an approach where “a parent may be able to get multiple years of financial help and care starting well before age four.” This is something that is particularly important for children who need more exposure to early education in order to catch up to their more privileged peers.

Also, parents want options. An amazing 97 percent of the low-income parents surveyed expressed support for an approach a parent would be able to choose from a wide variety of high-quality programs that are based in schools, centers, homes, religious organizations or nonprofit organizations. Finally, 89 percent support allowing parents “the option of choosing a high quality program with connections to their race, ethnicity, language, religion and/or values.”

All of these statements describe the Early Learning Scholarship approach.

Parents know their families' needs

So why should we care what low-income parents think? Because parents know better than anyone what their children and families need. Because most low-income parents need to be able to work full time to support their families, and need full-time care to make that possible. Because parents need to be as engaged as possible in their children’s early learning, and their level of engagement grows when they are empowered to choose a program that fits their life circumstances, culture and preferences.

For lawmakers committed to closing opportunity gaps in education that open as early as age 1, parental needs and wants should matter, a lot. In this survey, the voices of low-income parents are loud and clear. We hope state government leaders will be listening.

Barb Fabre is the director of the White Earth Child Care/Early Childhood Program on the White Earth Reservation. Sondra Samuels is the president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in Minneapolis, which provides comprehensive services to low-income children of color so that they graduate from high school and are prepared for college.

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