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Minnesota needs an early-education czar, task force says

Right now, the state’s struggling early childhood programs are administered by three state agencies, resulting in a patchwork of 14 different efforts with different minders, advocate Karen Cadigan and others testified.

Karen Cadigan
Karen Cadigan

In 2002, only half of children in both Minnesota and Maryland entered kindergarten ready to learn. Today, despite nearly a decade of increasingly broad support for the concept of early childhood education, that dismal statistic still applies to Minnesota’s youngest learners.

By contrast, Maryland six years ago appointed a director of early learning who got to work shoring up the state’s pre-K programs and policies. Maryland now prepares 70 percent of kids for school.

“That’s 20,000 more kids,” said Karen Cadigan, policy director of the University of Minnesota’s Children, Youth and Family Consortium. “That’s a lot of kids.”

Cadigan Thursday testified before the House Education Finance Committee about recommendations (PDF) formulated by a task force the Legislature charged with studying the creation of an Office of Early Learning.

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The bottom line: It’s time for Minnesota to get its own early-ed czar.

“Then hold that person accountable,” Cadigan said. “Say, ‘You’ve got to get 20,000 more kids ready for kindergarten.”

Right now, Minnesota’s struggling early childhood programs are administered by three state agencies. And while any redundancies disappeared years ago along with flush state coffers, the result is a patchwork of 14 different efforts with different minders.

Without patron, early-ed efforts suffer, advocates say
Early-ed advocates have complained for years that without a cabinet-level patron, services for the state’s littlest learners were easy prey for budget-cutters. Adding insult to injury, the fact that the bureaucracy described that programming as child care — a social welfare issue — and not education, like K-12, made it particularly vulnerable.

Of course, now that there’s more widespread agreement among members of the business community and both political parties that a lack of early ed is the single biggest contributor to the racial and economic achievement gap, there’s also a $5 billion budget deficit.

Cadigan and the other pre-K proponents who testified Thursday told lawmakers a lack of money shouldn’t stop them from creating a state office dedicated to early learning. Moving programs and staff from existing agencies to a new, standalone one could occur gradually. Or it could be a matter of creating a chain of authority on paper while the warm bodies who do the work stay at their current desks in their respective agencies, but respond to the czar.

“It’s really about having somebody driving the boat,” Cadigan said, “looking at all the stuff that’s going on and getting it all on the same page.”

The task force studied ways in which other states had created early childhood authorities. Some folded everything into the Department of Education, a move (PDF) Dayton has proposed and that has the advantage of aligning pre-K with the departments charged with overseeing progress in K-3, the grades most crucial to positioning kids for success.

They also studied several states where the governor appoints a ranking official responsible for early childhood programming and policy. For example, the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development is an office in the organizational chart of both the Department of Education and the Department of Public Welfare.

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According to a fiscal analysis (PDF) prepared for last year’s legislative session, either move might require relatively little money. Two new senior staff members would need to be hired at a cost of $212,000 a year.

Gradual process foreseen
Moving existing staff into one building would be ideal, the task force concluded. But it would mean additional costs. “Co-location” could be a gradual process, or employees could remain right where they are and work together virtually.

The move would affect six Department of Education programs, including school readiness and Head Start. The Department of Human Services is home to six more, ranging from subsidies for low-income families to funds for the development of child care facilities. Two related programs administered by the Department of Health would remain where they are.

It’s not the first time policymakers have attempted to give early ed an institutional home — and by extension a better shot at competing for resources and visibility. In 1995, the Legislature approved then-Gov. Arne Carlson’s proposal to replace the Department of Education with the Department of Children, Families and Learning, which took over early childhood programs then run by human services.

Public spending on child care had traditionally been viewed as a welfare benefit, however, and in 2003, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty returned the child care programs to human services. At about the same time, early ed lost some passionate advocates within the Legislature, and the standing committees that had coordinated child care policy were dissolved.

Since then, the relationship between the lack of high-quality, affordable pre-K programming and the state’s achievement gap — one of the worst in the nation — has come to the attention of Minnesota’s largest employers. Accordingly, the Itasca Project and other pro-education business-backed groups began lobbying for funding just as the state’s bank account hit the red.

Funding would be nice, Cadigan and the others testifying said. But a formal structure for making sure early ed doesn’t get lost is very important, too. Having one person to hold accountable, she said, would streamline things.

“That’s the whole idea: Cost savings, efficiencies, better accountability,” she said. “We don’t actually know what we are getting for our money now.”