Minnesota has an enviable problem – how to spend a $9.25 billion fortune, the latest and greatest in a decade-long series of state budget surpluses.
While the governor, a Democratic House and a Republican Senate dicker and bicker over what to do with that windfall, 80 percent of preschool children living in poverty have yet to become even a footnote in state education spending.
That neglect must end. Now.
The $70 million in state money earmarked for early childhood scholarships hasn’t changed in four years. Neither has the grim outlook for 31,000 disadvantaged kids left behind by a state initiative too ill-funded to help every child in need.
It’s time for the state to double-down on early childhood education this year and, after measurable results show what that spending can accomplish, double spending on disadvantage kids again in the next biennial budget.
Study after study show that children, from birth to age 4, enrolled in quality early education are less likely to later drop out of school or run afoul of the law and more likely to be healthier and end up as reliable taxpayers with stable families.
If the governor and legislator can’t agree on a surplus spending plan by midnight, May 22, the state will be failing tens of thousands of kids who can’t wait another year to get a head start in education – and in life.
Investing in those kids is the best long-term investment the state can make, an estimated 16 percent rate of return – far higher than competing claims on public money.
The improved school outcomes for early ed for kids, age 3 and 4, are sustainable and well-established.
But preparing disadvantaged children for school – to learn how to learn – must begin even earlier, with pre-natal visits and recruiting parents to engage with their children from birth to their earliest years.
The latest research, published earlier this year, indicates an enriched environment literally can spark to life key regions of developing brains.
I recently moderated a panel that illustrated the promise stimulating even the youngest of minds. The session was sponsored by the Heller-Hurwicz Economics Institute at the University of Minnesota, a think tank dedicated to transforming research into tools of public policy.
Money can be a key element in changing the fortunes of the youngest living in poverty. An experiment, which already has spent $5 million raised from foundations and private donors, has yielding fascinating evidence of how infant brain maturity is affected by family income.
Using electronic imaging of the brain activity of 435 healthy one-year-olds born to low-income parents in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Omaha, New York City and New Orleans, the study is in its fourth year.
In a random lottery, the mostly Black and Latina mothers with incomes averaging about $20,000, were divided into two groups. One receives a monthly cash gift of $333. The other a token $20 a month.
The experiment, begun in June 2019, will continue with unconditional payments to mothers until the children are four years, four months old.
The study started with a simple premise, according to Katherine Magnuson, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She said researchers began with “a hypothesis that because our brains are born ready to be affected by our experiences, and because the experiences can vary so much by parent income and economic resources that you might think that there is a chance that poverty and related early adversity will affect brain development in ways … that are not going to set children up for success in school.”
The results visibly verified that idea.
Electronic scans, interpreted by neuroscientist, showed the brains of children literally lit up in regions associated with cognition. That is, if their mothers had received a 20 percent increase in family income from the $333 monthly checks.
Meanwhile, the electrical activity of the same areas of the brain were muted for kids in the families receiving only $20 a month.
In effect, children whose families got an economic boost also got a lift in brain development, Magnuson said.
“It’s the idea that even before you can really reliably assess cognitive development from figuring out how many numbers or words they know, what colors they understand, you can look at their brain activity and potentially get a glimpse of what’s to come,” she said.
Let’s awaken the brain waves of Minnesota’s political leaders with a call to action.
Improving the future of kids living in poverty is doable. Let’s do it.
Art Rolnick is a board member of the Heller-Hurwicz Economics Institute and retired director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.