In a short, to-the-point statement, Gov. Mark Dayton yesterday announced an expanded statewide early-childhood-education quality ratings system, neatly ending one of the year’s more divisive ideological battles.
Dayton might not have done a heck of a lot of politicking and posturing during his first six months in office, but he certainly was studying the fine print associated with governing. Provided they have statutory authority, most state governors can issue orders to implement programs and policies. What they can’t do is appropriate money.
Which sheds a brilliant shaft of light on one of the stranger, heretofore unexplained compromises contained in the final education bill approved by lawmakers during last month’s special session: Plenty of education advocates noted that the compromise package included $4 million in early-childhood scholarships but not the statewide quality ratings system that was supposed to guide recipients to top-notch programs.
In other words, he made an ideological concession to a small group of GOP freshmen who may well not have realized that their predecessors passed statutes creating the Parent Aware ratings system and ordering its statewide expansion in both 2009 and 2010. And who may well have thought $4 million in scholarships was a small bone to toss the poor, beleaguered governor.
Early in the session, Dayton issued an executive order creating an Early Learning Council to guide his campaign to close the achievement gap in part by making sure disadvantaged kids are ready for kindergarten. At the time, the quality ratings system still enjoyed near unanimous support, so it seemed reasonable that the group, whose members he put off naming, would have plenty to do.
Shortly afterward, during a marathon late-night session in March, state House GOP leaders quietly killed the bill. They still have not publicly explained the wee-hours disappearance of the revenue-neutral measure, which was sponsored by a member of their own caucus.
But the bill’s only opposition came from a couple of far-right organizations, including one that launched U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s career as an education crusader. The danger warned of by Education Liberty Watch and the Minnesota Family Council: a nanny state.
The move stunned policy advocates on both sides of the political aisle, and outraged members of the state’s usually powerful business lobby, who financed Parent Aware’s five-year pilot and, thrilled by the positive impact of tying funds to quality requirements, lobbied for its statewide expansion.
Fast-forward three months and an ugly stalemate, and lawmakers, again acting in the predawn hours, saw the text of the final education compromise bill less than an hour before the special session was gaveled to a close.
Last week, the leaders of the nonprofit that created the quality system, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), urged the governor to create the system himself. Under separate cover, a Who’s Who of education reform and early-ed proponents also wrote to Dayton [PDF] to ask that he act.
Yesterday, the names of a number of the letter’s signatories appeared in a release from Dayton’s office announcing the appointment of 22 people to the Early Learning Council he created in March. Simultaneously, the governor announced the formation of a three-member Children’s Cabinet, another proposal rebuffed by the legislature, and appointed the state commissioners of education, health and human services to it.
“Gov. Dayton also reaffirmed his commitment to apply for federal Race to the Top – Early Challenge funds as a way to support Minnesota’s efforts to close achievement gaps,” the release added. “The federal grant would award up to $50 million to states that increase the number of low-income children enrolled in high quality early learning programs, which is a key part of preparing children for Kindergarten. Established in 2009, Minnesota has a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) to ensure access to high-quality early learning and care programs. This program will continue under current statutory authority, enhancing Minnesota’s application for Race to the Top funds.”