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A bureaucratic interpretation will shape the futures of Minnesota’s most vulnerable kids

Virginia and other states are using federal funding for programs like Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships, so there is no reason to believe that Minnesota can’t do it too.

Art Rolnick is a former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a current economist at the University of Minnesota.
Art Rolnick is a former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a current economist at the University of Minnesota.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

There has never been a better opportunity to help Minnesota’s most vulnerable low-income children access high-quality early learning programs and to succeed in school and life. After all, Minnesota state government has a $1.6 billion projected state budget surplus; $2.8 billion in flexible federal COVID-19 relief aid is arriving from Washington; the state has over $500 million in federal relief earmarked for child care; and a huge bipartisan, multidisciplinary coalition is fighting day and night for those kids.

This is truly the opportunity of a lifetime for those children.

Minnesota has shown that Early Learning Scholarships are the best tool for seizing this opportunity. Compared to alternative early learning-related funding streams, scholarships do the best job of targeting resources to the most vulnerable, ensuring that children are benefiting from kindergarten-readiness best practices, reaching children early in life with multiple years of help, giving families the options they need to find a fit for their work schedules, locations, cultures and other preferences, and ensuring that children don’t lose their learning continuity when parents have to change homes or jobs.

According to the research, these are the programmatic components that lead to success for children. People on the front lines such as White Earth Nation’s former Director of Child Care/Early Childhood Barb Fabre and Northside Achievement Zone CEO Sondra Samuels regularly tell lawmakers that these scholarships have proven to be the best tool for delivering those benefits.

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A matter of interpretation

However, a problem with using federal funding to bring scholarships to more of Minnesota’s 35,000 unserved young low-income children has emerged. The Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) has interpreted federal rules in a way that doesn’t allow federal funding to be used for the scholarships.

If the reader’s eyes are glazing over right now, I can’t blame you. This probably seems like too much of an obscure backwater bureaucratic issue to follow. But bear with me, because this interpretation of federal rules would mean that thousands of Minnesota’s most needy children, such as children who can’t be served by Minnesota’s other major early learning programs, can’t benefit from current and future federal help.

It would also mean that thousands of disadvantaged children wouldn’t be benefiting from kindergarten-readiness best practices now and in the future. The ability to demand best-practice use for children is critically important because research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICDH) has found that putting children in low-quality programs actually sets children back, with worse behavior issues, cognitive performance, language skills, and school readiness scores.

In other words, the outcome of this administrative decision will profoundly impact the lives of Minnesota’s most vulnerable children. Because this is such a big deal, Close Gaps by 5, a nonprofit on whose board of directors I serve, wanted to dig deeper into other states’ experiences.

Digging deeper into the issue

We enlisted a national expert to weigh in on this issue, Grace Reef from the Washington-based Child Care Policy Group (CCPG). Reef has spent decades analyzing and making federal child care policy for, among others, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, U.S. Senate Majority Leaders George Mitchell and Tom Daschle, Child Care Aware of America, and the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). She has a deep knowledge of federal child care laws and rules, and states’ use of those laws and rules, so we asked her to use her expertise to dig deeper into this issue.

The CCPG review of other states’ use of federal funding brings extremely good news for Minnesota’s most disadvantaged children. It reports that the federal government has been allowing state programs with features similar to Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships to use federal funding.

For instance, Virginia is using federal child care funding for its pre-kindergarten program, even though it, like Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarship program, sets quality requirements, has no co-pay requirement, and has different eligibility requirements from typical state child care subsidy programs.

Virginia and other states are using federal funding for scholarship-like programs, so there is no reason to believe that Minnesota can’t do it too. CCPG believes that there is a series of steps that DHS can take to notify the federal government of what they are doing and why. Would this require extra effort? Absolutely. Is that extra effort worth doing? Absolutely.

To be clear, the intention with this CCPG analysis is not at all to criticize the committed early care and education officials at DHS. DHS officials have been outstanding partners over the years in helping children, particularly when it comes to the Parent Aware quality improvement system. The CCPG analysis simply brings more information to the table to inform lawmakers’ and program administrators’ decisions, and fortunately the news it brings about other states’ experiences is very good news indeed.

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Use information from other states’ experience

Therefore, my plea to the bipartisan Minnesota Legislature and the Walz-Flanagan administration is simple: Let’s direct federal funding to Minnesota’s most effective, efficient, and research-based early learning access tool: Early Learning Scholarships. In the unlikely event that federal officials see the issue differently from the CCPG analysis, then we can pivot to a “Plan B,” and reallocate funding to Minnesota’s less flexible, efficient, and effective child-care funding streams.

But at this stage, let’s start with the assumption that Minnesota can use federal funding for Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships, since other states have done so with programs similar to it.

Eyes glazed over yet? I don’t blame you! But I promise you, the outcome of this issue will have a huge impact on many of Minnesota’s most disadvantaged children, now and for decades to come.

Art Rolnick is a former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and a current economist at the University of Minnesota. He also serves on the board of directors for three early learning-focused nonprofit organizations, Think Small, Way to Grow, and Close Gaps by 5.

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