Strengthening early education means doing what works for all children. This is the vision of the Minnesota Early Learning Council and is directly supported in the World’s Best Work Force statute. The unifying goal is that all children will be ready for school at kindergarten entry.
The best available evidence indicates that only half of all Minnesota children entering kindergarten are fully ready in literacy, math, and socio-emotional skills. Since the vast majority of young learners are from middle-income families, large increases are needed across the income spectrum to meet the universal readiness goal in any realistic time frame. Only a universal system of access can accomplish this. The targeted approaches advocated by Close Gaps by Five, Think Small, and others address only part of the need.
Increasing readiness for all is an accelerating national trend. In a recent national and bipartisan poll of voters, only 18 percent said they have high-quality and affordable programs in their local community, and 85 percent favored increased public support to middle- and low-income families to address these problems. Since nearly four in five 4-year-olds are in some form of out-of-home education and care, the situation is most pressing. All children, regardless of income and ZIP code, deserve access to early education that is highly effective and affordable.
It is this state of affairs that motivated the Preschool for All Initiative in the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation’s goal that every child has highly effective early learning opportunities, and a bill now before Congress called the “Child Care for Working Families Act” that establishes federal-state partnerships to increase access that is affordable. Jurisdictions as diverse as Vermont, Oklahoma, Seattle, Madison, and New York City provide universal access that varies in financing and service delivery to best fit the need.
There are four key characteristics and benefits of a universal access system that would address systemic gaps but also allow flexibility in implementation for maximum cost-effectiveness. The goal must be that gains in school readiness are sustained in the elementary grades.
1. Focus on highly effective programs: Research shows that large and sustained effects leading to high returns occur only for the programs of high quality. Key elements include: a) small classes and low child to staff ratios, b) intensive focus on a spectrum of readiness skills within a developmental philosophy, c) strong family-school partnering, d) frequent monitoring and feedback, e) teachers with BAs and/or compensation at levels comparable to K-12 teachers, and f) a well-developed organizational support system. Our studies in the St. Paul and Chicago schools show that the presence of these elements enhances the entire continuum of education success.
Minnesota’s Parent Aware Quality Rating System does not assess these features well. A review of the indicators shows there are no specific standards for instruction time and intensity, class size, breadth and level of family services, and professional learning. Indicators need to align so that programs with the strongest and most sustained effects have the highest ratings. With a questionable rating system, the whole financing model of early childhood scholarships becomes suspect, since the level of funding is based on the 4-star ratings. There is also no built-in mechanism for K-3 alignment.
2. Flexible financing options: Many financing models exist, from ability to pay to freely available through state or school funding formulas, as well as block grants to local communities. A mixed delivery system is needed, as schools do not have sufficient capacity. As one example, Wisconsin uses a school funding formula that includes both school-based and community child care, with 80 percent of Wisconsin 4-year-olds enrolling in public preK compared to about 20 percent of young Minnesotans. Block grants to communities also are common (e.g., Illinois, Georgia).
3. Reduces costs to families: Given that Minnesota has one of the highest child care costs in the nation, a universal system would reduce economic stress for families and raise the bar on quality that would benefit all. Universal access, especially to full-day options, also furthers parents’ own career and educational goals. In the federal bill noted above, there is a cap on child care costs such that families under 150 percent of the state median income pay no more than 7 percent of their income on child care. Increased funding for infant care and compensation for child care teachers also is included.
4. Positive evidence of benefits: In the first long-term study of universal preschool in public schools, Tulsa, Oklahoma, graduates at all income levels showed at age 13 improved math achievement, increase enrollment in honors courses, and reduced rates of grade retention. Another study found that school readiness levels of low-income 4-year-olds are higher in states that have universal access. These benefits translate to returns on investment that are found to exceed costs by a factor of 3.
The key elements of learning are the same for all children. The opportunity now is to ensure these elements are fully in place and are driven by the best evidence of impacts. Universal access can ensure that quality programs are available for all. Given current levels of school readiness, we need bigger and better approaches that strengthen the culture of early learning. To achieve the vision of universal readiness, all investments have to be for highly effective programs.
Arthur J. Reynolds is co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota and professor in the Institute of Child Development.
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