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Legislators keep debating early learning programs. How do we know what works best?

House DFLers and Gov. Tim Walz propose renewing funding for 4,000 volunteer preschool slots in public school districts. Senate Republicans want to use those funds for early learning scholarships instead.

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Should Minnesota go the way of its neighbors in Iowa and Wisconsin and pay for universal (and voluntary) preschool?

Once – or if – legislators on the education conference committee receive a budget target and get into the messy work of crafting a final schools finance bill, they’ll butt heads over two very different plans.

One area that’s sure to stir debate relates to how the state should prepare children for school. House DFLers and Gov. Tim Walz propose renewing funding for 4,000 volunteer preschool slots in public school districts. Senate Republicans want to use those funds for early learning scholarships instead. The scholarships help low-income families pay for care or preschool in whatever program they choose – including in public schools or something else like a private child care center.

Lawmakers have set up a number of early childhood programs going back decades. The mix of funding streams and purposes form a muddled landscape that parents must navigate if they want their child to participate – and especially if they want the state to subsidize that participation. State investment in these programs has shifted and expanded more recently as advocates united around research that shows the wide-ranging long-term benefits of beginning education and development early.

But while everyone acknowledges the value of early learning, they don’t agree on the way to deliver it, in this case, for 4-year-olds. Should Minnesota go the way of its neighbors in Iowa and Wisconsin and pay for universal (and voluntary) preschool? Or should the state prioritize paying for low-income families’ preschooling and leave it to the market to supply those slots, either in public or private venues?

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Experimenting but not evaluating

Minnesota has taken steps in both directions in recent years. Under Dayton, who supported universal preschool, lawmakers set aside $50 million for about 4,000 preschool seats under a program it called School Readiness Plus. School districts awarded funding could use it to expand or start preschool programs. Rather than being filled by any student, those slots were for at-risk 4-year-olds, who could attend for free. Families that didn’t meet the at-risk criteria could still send their children, but they had to pay a fee.

The funding will expire with the current budget. DFL lawmakers are scrambling to save it.

Before that, the state launched a pilot program for early learning scholarships in 2011 and has expanded it statewide since then. It gives low-income families up to $7,500 to send their 3- to 5-year-olds to early childhood programs, though the actual amount varies depending on the program. The higher a program ranks in the state’s four-star quality rating system, called Parent Aware, the larger the scholarship.

Initially, scholarships were only available for three- and four-star programs, but, in 2017, the Legislature opened them up to lower-ranked programs, as well, albeit at a lower amount.

So, with experiments running – some for many years – it would seem that the next step is to evaluate their impact and continue with what works. A 2018 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor notes the difficulty of doing that.

The report reviewed nine childhood programs and financing mechanisms and found a “complex and fragmented” system that places little emphasis on evaluating outcomes. “State law gives priority to meeting goals on school readiness, but the number of children prepared for school is unknown,” the report states.

Authors of the OLA report critiqued a 2016 report to the Legislature by the Minnesota Department of Education on early learning scholarships, saying the “research was flawed” because its conclusions about effectiveness were based on poor comparisons.

MDE contracted with SRI International, a third-party evaluator, to study whether early learning scholarships contributed to kindergarten readiness. The study compared scholarship participants in three- and four-star programs to participants in one- and two-star programs who did not receive a scholarship. Unsurprisingly, it found that children who participated in higher quality programs had better results.

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The study should have compared low-income children who attended high quality programs with scholarships to children who attended high quality programs without scholarships, said Judy Temple, a professor at the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative. She studies child and family policy. Head Start and school-based pre-K are four-star programs under Parent Aware,

“I wish that the State of Minnesota had a history of doing more evaluations of our public programs,” Temple said. “Compared to other states, we don’t invest very much in rigorous evaluations. As a result, evidence base, particularly for scholarships, is pretty weak.”

Can a ‘funding mechanism’ take credit for outcomes?

Advocates of scholarships say they’re proven to work, and that has permeated Republican messaging around the push for elevating scholarships above other programs vying for state funding.

Multiple studies show children who attended high quality early learning programs with the help of scholarships were better prepared for kindergarten than expected, based on averages for low-income children in their community. That’s why the model has ample community support. The Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis said in its latest report that nearly half of children enrolled in one of their partner childhood programs are ready for kindergarten, compared to a third of children who are not enrolled.

The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, now called Close Gaps by 5, is an advocacy organization led by several prominent Minnesota business people that designed and paid to pilot scholarships in communities.

They designed the model based on research by Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald performed at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which made the case that investing in early learning is good for the economy. Rolnick studies the economics of child development and advocates for the scholarship model. He also is a senior fellow at the Humphrey School and is on the Close Gaps by 5 board.

The scholarship model was designed around four priorities: starting long before preschool, with programs for children from birth; targeting aid at those in most need; demanding high quality; and maintaining flexibility by allowing parents to choose where to send their children.

Maas said they settled on those pillars after reviewing research and talking to parents, not with any particular program in mind. They oppose universal pre-K because they believe it doesn’t fit their priorities.

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Rolnick said he can’t understand the argument for any other model that, from his perspective, takes control away from parents in favor of school districts calling the shots. “They want total control,” he said. “They want to tell parents where to go.”

They also don’t want the state to pay to offer free preschool for kids from wealthy families.

“From our perspective, that is a debate about how you see the world or the political landscape. Our perspective is that resources are limited and they’ll continue to be limited. We’re not going to be able to get a billion dollars or more of investment for a while,” Maas said. “It looks like this year there’s going to be another incremental investment. We would continue to say (the best place) is in scholarships.”

In “issue briefs,” the organization says this is “the best” option for closing achievement gaps before children start elementary school.

“We point to research that shows that low-income children in high-quality learning environments make important gains that they sustain over their lifetimes,” said Ericca Maas, Close Gaps by 5 executive director.

But some of the research advocates point to has been criticized for making inadequate or inappropriate comparisons that make the results look better than they are. So, it’s unclear whether scholarships are better than other models that also give low-income children access to high-quality learning programs.

The 2016 MDE report is one example. Another study conducted from 2008 to 2011, before the state adopted the model, evaluated early learning scholarships used in St. Paul. Scholarship recipients who participated in the study made gains in some areas, but researchers found “no significant group differences” when compared to children entering kindergarten who had not received scholarships.

Maas said that the point is that scholarships connect children to the highest quality programs in the state. She’s confident scholarships work because she’s confident Parent Aware does a good job of ranking programs based on set standards.

“Scholarships are just a funding mechanism,” she said. “They don’t do anything for kids. They pay for kids to go to programs. The outcomes that children get from using their scholarships have to do with the programs they’re connected to.”

Decades of evidence

Critics, like Temple and her colleagues at the Human Capital Research Collaborative, say the hype surrounding scholarships isn’t supported by research, but it diverts state dollars from  Head Start or school-based programs.

Arthur Reynolds, co-director of the HCRC, puts it bluntly: “Scholarships are the wrong approach. These are really vouchers with reimbursement tied to a flawed Parent Aware system. There is zero evidence of effectiveness.”

Reynolds led the expansion of a Chicago early childhood model in practice since 1967 called the Child-Parent Centers. In 2012, the HCRC brought the model to three districts in Illinois and the district in St. Paul.

He said publicly administered programs deserve the state’s investment based on decades of research in Minnesota and around the country. Data collected over decades on people who attended Child-Parent Centers show it had a long-term impact on their academic, social, and economic outcomes.

The Child-Parent Center approach also has demonstrated success in St. Paul. Children who participated at district-funded preschools started kindergarten months ahead of their classmates who also attended high quality programs, including voluntary pre-K or Head Start, according to a 2017 study published in Child Development.

Reynolds, who is an expert on the characteristics of early learning programs that contribute to long-term positive outcomes, also criticized Parent Aware. A report on the ranking system concluded it “has integrity” as a measuring stick for early care and education programs of all kinds in the state, but Reynolds said it provides only a “weak” assessment of program quality.

For example, it doesn’t give enough weight to small class sizes or other elements known to have lasting effects, he said.

“My real issue is that a four-star program does not ensure sustained or worthwhile investment,” he said. “You don’t have to have perfect evidence. Does the program align with principles of effectiveness that we’ve known for 35-plus years produce sustained gains?”

What’s at stake

Ultimately, the goal of advocates and experts on each side is to expand their respective programs.

Reynolds wants voluntary pre-K to be universally available. Rolnick would have the state grow scholarship funding by tapping into the money it puts into voluntary pre-K and the Child Care Assistance Program, which families use in conjunction with scholarships to afford early learning programs.

Either way, without expansion, Minnesota programs will continue to reach only a fraction of children. Maas estimated less than half of needy children in the state receive scholarships. Reynolds cited rankings that place Minnesota 33rd out of 45 states based on preschool access. He also said only about half of Minnesota kids are considered ready for kindergarten. “It’s really an embarrassing situation,” he said.

That puts pressure on lawmakers to decide the path the state will take to expand early learning access. “There should be a robust discussion about how to structure and create a whole new area of education for the state. In my mind, it warrants a good robust discussion. It’s really, really important,” Maas said. From her experience in Minnesota policymaking, getting it right is critical. “Once you get stuff, it’s hard to change.”