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Fledgling Parent Aware helping families find high-quality pre-K education

Thanks to a novel public-private partnership, some Minnesota parents and employers have a new online tool for finding and evaluating high-quality child-care resources.

You know that old saw about making sausage and legislation? Often, when hardened ideological foes go at each other in Congress or at the state Capitol, the result is … worse sausage than either side started with. Every once in a while, though, instead of bad policy or empty rhetoric, a political compromise generates good policy.

To wit: Minnesota’s fledgling “Parent Aware” system for rating early-childhood education programs. Thanks to a novel public-private partnership years in the conjuring, parents and employers in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Blue Earth and Nicollet counties and the Wayzata school district have a brand-new tool for finding and evaluating high-quality child-care resources.

Ever since 2003, when the Minnesota Legislature made its first major cuts in state child-care assistance, policymakers on both sides of the aisle have been engaged in an ongoing argument that, reduced to its barest, oversimplified bones, has gone something like this:

Noting that fully half of the 60,000 Minnesota children who enter kindergarten each year aren’t prepared for school, DFLers have called for more spending on child care and other pre-K programs. Their arguments are bolstered by the findings of economists, including Art Rolnick, former senior vice president of the Federal Reserve, that every dollar invested in early ed returns $16 in investments in later life in the form of higher earnings and tax revenues and lower public-safety and welfare costs.

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Republican lawmakers, in turn, have countered that Minnesota’s scale for child-care assistance eligibility is too generous, and that there has been no mechanism for ensuring that tax dollars spent on child care go for effective pre-K programming, and not baby sitting.

Years of no traction
Session after session, lawmakers and other political types have waded in and out of this debate without gaining any real traction in any direction, even as a generation of kids show up at the state’s overburdened, underfunded schools already woefully behind and, barring a miracle, likely to lag even further as the years go on.

(Don’t believe me? Ah, the stories I could tell from my own relatively privileged kids’ early school years, when their teachers struggled to reach the most unfortunate kids, who could not describe the weather, much less keep up with a phonics exercise. I wish I were kidding.)

Bless Minnesota’s business community for wading sensibly into the fray yet again, presumably in the interest of both its current employees and its future workforce. With the backing of nonprofits, civic leaders and a blue-chip consortium of local employers such as Cargill, Best Buy, General Mills, United Healthcare and Ecolab, the nonprofit Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) has launched the online Parent Aware campaign.

Parent Aware’s ratings are issued by the Minnesota Department of Human Services but draw also on data from the state Department of Education, the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development, Metropolitan State University’s Minnesota Center for Professional Development and the Minnesota Child Care Resource & Referral Network.

Zero to five stars
Ratings, which are issued in the form of zero to five stars, are based on data evaluating programs’ safety records, staff education and opportunities for ongoing training, mechanism for measuring and tracking pre-K learning, the availability of good teaching materials and methods and — drum roll please — family partnerships. (You’re thinking that last one is a given? Clearly you have not tried to find good child care in recent years, or been held captive to mediocre care.)

It’s about time. Anyone who has tried to find top-notch care for an infant, toddler or preschooler in Minnesota over the last decade surely knows the frustration that is attempting to find space in an affordable program offering care that keeps kids safe and well nourished, but also prepares them to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

I can tell you from personal experience that even for a middle-class family in which each parent has a salary, a car and a flexible employer, the hunt to find — and pay for — good care can be one of the most scarring experiences a parent can have.

Not counting the after-school care they’ve had since kindergarten, my kids’ early ed cost more than $120,000 — money that might have underwritten a 401(k) or a couple of college funds, or paid off my entire mortgage at the time. Happily, they got very, very good services for that chunk of change — from a provider that has long advocated state standards — but many Minnesota families spend just as much and get far less.

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Easy to find programs, ratings
I’ve done a little poking around on Parent Aware’s pilot site and it seems like a noble effort that could use a little tweaking around the edges. As promised, it’s easy to find high-quality programs, star ratings and contact information. Another section of the site helps parents calculate whether they are eligible for financial aid and — eureka! — different kinds of family-friendly policies and benefits parents can press employers to offer.

It’s not so clear, however, how a program’s rating is calculated. My own kids were fortunate to spend their preschool years with the YWCA of Minneapolis, which operates programs in three different sites. I clicked and clicked, but was unable to find an explanation for why one of the locations ended up with one star, another with three and still another with five.

According to an op-ed penned by Dane Smith of Growth & Justice (from which I freely admit to cribbing liberally), MELF is attempting to draw attention to Parent Aware now in part because the group has an ambitious agenda for the upcoming legislative session that it says can be accomplished without appropriating new state funds.

In addition to extending the ratings system to the rest of the state, the group proposes to create a variety of incentives to steer parents and caregivers to top programs, including “early learning scholarships” for needy families enrolling in highly rated programs, “train and retain credits” for early educators and “Early Learners Hero” tax credits for private donors.