This year I have had an opportunity to spend some face-to-face time with gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Walz, as well as other candidates seeking to serve at the state Capitol in St. Paul. An important issue that I have heard too little talk about is investments in the future workforce through programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds.
A bit of background is in order. Brain-development research has long reported on the necessity of laying a strong foundation for learning between birth and age 5. Roughly half of Minnesota kids are not fully prepared to succeed when they begin kindergarten, and too many of them never do catch up.
If the voters begin insisting on knowing candidate views on this subject prior to the Nov. 6 General Election, perhaps that will bring renewed bipartisan attention to an idea that has long been on the state’s agenda.
Federal Reserve Bank research
Fifteen years ago, quantitative research by former Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank economist Art Rolnick and his colleague Rob Grunewald concluded that for every dollar invested in the right kind of early childhood education, over time the broader society receives an $18 return.
In addition, an enormous “achievement gap” between more affluent white students and lower-income students of color especially motivated the business community to become involved.
The state’s investments since that time in a special scholarship program serving hundreds of families was aimed at preK kids who would otherwise be unable to attend high quality early learning programs. About eight in 10 of these youngsters, we have learned, do catch up by the time they enter kindergarten. But this program does not reach tens of thousands of young Minnesotans and their parents who would most benefit from them.
The scholarship program is aimed at helping to prepare our next generation of working Minnesotans, whose higher-level skills will be desperately needed to fill a growing workforce shortage over the next several years.
Early Learning Scholarships
The Early Learning Scholarships are aimed at increasing access to high-quality early childhood programs for 3- and 4-year-old children to improve their school readiness.
Children from birth to 2-years-old are eligible if they meet one or more of the following criteria: child of a teen parent; currently in foster care; in need of child protective services; experienced homelessness in the last 24 months.
With about a $48 billion two-year state budget, a relatively small investment in more such scholarships ($100 million or less than one-half a percent) can result in an enormous improvement in early education school readiness for those eligible who are most in need.
Parent Aware Ratings
The “Parent Aware Ratings” program’s goal is to ensure that the tax dollars supporting the scholarships are awarded only to providers using the most effective early learning practices.
Under the program, Minnesota parents of the kids who are eligible for the scholarships are allowed to select from the full range of top-rated programs: center-based, church-based, home-based or school-based. This model empowers families to locate the early learning providers who can best fit their scheduling, location, transportation, price and cultural needs. It also gives all types of certified early learning providers an equal opportunity to attract the scholarship kids.
Such linking of pre-K scholarships to the Parent Aware Ratings got a big boost when in 2011 Minnesota was awarded a $45 million “Race to the Top” federal grant “to improve early education outcomes.”
The state needs to bring new energy to these important efforts.
In a survey of CEOs in Minnesota, there was strong agreement (90+ percent) among responders that a high quality future workforce directly affected their business and that “effective early learning programs” for children who are most at-risk “is a wise public investment.”
Chuck Slocum [Chuck@WillistonGroup.Com] is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. An active mentor, Slocum was a founder of Minnesota Business for Early Learning.
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