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House quietly drops popular plan to launch statewide pre-K rating system

Authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican, the bill was revenue-neutral and enjoyed bipartisan backing.

At the start of the current legislative session there were two predictions education policy watchers thought they could make bank on: With reform atop the agendas of both the GOP majority and a number of DFLers, change — possibly a tectonic shift — was a given; and with members of both parties in agreement that early childhood education is key to closing the achievement gap, pre-K would finally get a place at the big kids’ table.

Even assuming Gov. Mark Dayton vetoes the three shrapnel-laden omnibus education bills the House passed early Wednesday morning, we can probably agree that No. 1 has come to pass. No. 2, however, may have died a largely overlooked middle-of-the-night death at the hands of a pre-Tea-Party-era specter.

While most observers were focused on debates over private-school vouchers and the end of traditional teacher tenure rules, the House GOP leadership quietly killed most of a bill to create a statewide rating system to identify high-quality early-ed programs, steer the fragile families that rely on public child-care subsidies toward them and reward providers that deliver top results.

Authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican, the bill was revenue-neutral, meaning its implementation would not cost a cent, and it enjoyed the backing of Dayton, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and pretty much everyone on the political continuum between them.

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No friends on religious right
It did not, however, have any friends on the religious right, which declared it an attempt to usurp the rights of Minnesota parents by placing their children under the authority of a nanny state. The Minnesota Family Council and Education Liberty Watch lobbied against the measure, arguing among other things that the government has no business telling parents how to parent.

Rep. Jenifer Loon
Rep. Jenifer Loon

“It was shortsighted on the part of the House,” said onetime Republican Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson, who noted that three-fourths of Minnesotans favor the system the bill would have created. The legislative leadership, he added, “carried the day by knowingly supporting the status quo.”

Benson is executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, a group of business and civic leaders that laid the groundwork for the legislation. In 2007, MELF set out five years ago to define high quality, persuaded by research showing that every dollar the state invests in top-notch early childhood education returns $16 to the economy.

Partly concerned about the effect the achievement gap was having on their potential workforce, MELF’s private-sector boosters put up $20 million to create a rating system and study its impact.

34 different funding streams
Benson noted that right now pre-K in Minnesota has 34 different funding streams housed in four agencies and no way of knowing whether kids are getting good care in exchange for that money. “The ultimate aim of all of this is to collapse all of those funding streams and put them in one set of hands to more effectively meet the needs of the consumer,” he said.

“By creating a quality rating system, we would funnel scholarships to poor families to the preschool of their choice, so long as that was a program of quality,” said Loon.

The scholarship fund is the one portion of the bill that survived the late-night bloodletting, perhaps not surprising given the House vote in favor of K-12 vouchers.  

The outcome is all the more ironic because the decade-old drive for accountability measures for pre-K began as a Republican effort. In 2001, a legislative auditor’s report [PDF] criticized state agencies for not knowing how wisely what was then some $400 million in child-care funding was being spent.

Pawlenty asked for proof of effectiveness
Two years later, when former Gov. Tim Pawlenty made the first deep cuts to state subsidies for low-income families, he told early-ed proponents they needed to prove the state’s investment was sound. In 2006, he vetoed the first proposed effort to establish ratings.

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With the backing of Best Buy, General Mills and other high-profile Twin Cities companies and civic leaders, MELF began its work that same year. Evaluations of the program’s initial phases have only confirmed that quality is crucial, Benson said.

Test scores rose and mobility virtually disappeared among children enrolled in St. Paul programs that participated in the pilot phase of “Parent Aware,” Benson said. “Now we’ll be back to half of these kids not being ready for kindergarten.”