The leaders of the 2021 legislative session, both Gov. Tim Walz and the DFL House and Republican Senate, were collectively guilty of legislative child neglect.
There is no more powerful tool for achieving true equity for all of our children than to give all of them equal access to quality early learning. Given the right start, every child has huge potential to succeed in school and in life.
With a billion-dollar-plus surplus, the governor and the Legislature made virtually no additional investment of state funds in early learning scholarships, our most potent tool to enable low-income children to get a quality start in school and in life. Research shows that such scholarships provide the highest return of any public expenditure.
There are an estimated 35,000 low-income children who desperately need access to quality early learning, whether in child care settings, or Head Start or school-based programs. Failing to invest adequately in early learning scholarships will set too many of those children on a path to school failure, with all the dire consequences that ensue. That is not an exaggeration.
One program, Way to Grow, serves very low-income children and through the use of scholarships is able to send more than 90 percent of those children to kindergarten ready for school success, far above the state school readiness average.
This is, and has been, a bipartisan issue, but it needs leadership.
The late Rep. Jim Ramstad took a growing interest in early learning. Like former Gov. Arne Carlson, who increased state investment in early learning, Jim was a Republican who cared about people and understood the value of early investment.
At the end of one interview about early learning Ramstad said, “This could be the next Minnesota Miracle!” How right he was.
Then-Sen. Walter Mondale understood the value of early learning and he passed a significant bill 50 years ago that would have moved the nation forward on this issue. Sadly, it was vetoed by then-President Richard Nixon. Former Gov. Mark Dayton, working with then-House Speaker Kurt Daudt, led strongly and effectively for increased investment in early learning scholarships.
Significant change requires a strong governor who understands what leaving a lasting legacy means. His or her concern must transcend PAC contributions and the next election. We need that kind of governor. Now.
Currently the state spends $70 million a year on early learning scholarships — which, when blended with other funding for child care or Head Start, enables 15,000 children to be served.
At the very least we should spend another $70 million in order to serve an additional 15,000 low-income children. Minnesota should phase in additional investment such that by the end of the decade every low-income child can get quality early care and education.
Thousands of children ages birth to 5 do not need pretty words and promises. They need strong leadership from the governor. This is not a time for excuses or more study. It is time for action. We know what works; now it is time to bring it to scale.
Walz and the Legislature should move forward in 2022 and do something that will have lasting value to our beloved state. That leadership can build a strong foundation for all of education in Minnesota, which will immeasurably help our common civic and economic life. Our leaders need to propose a bold increase in early learning scholarships for our most vulnerable children.
The window of opportunity for children birth to 5 is short. We sincerely hope that our state leaders will give them the chance to start strong and become ready for success, in school and in life. Our children need it and the governor and Legislature have it in their power to provide it.
Little children cannot wait!
Art Rolnick, Ph.D., former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is on the board of Way to Grow, Think Small, and the Northside Achievement Zone. Todd Otis is a former Minnesota state representative, former chair of the state DFL Party, and past president of Ready4K, an early childhood advocacy group that merged with Think Small.
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