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New early-ed proposal: Create quality-ratings system administratively

For educators, one of the bitterest compromises agreed to during July’s 12-hour special session was a final K-12 bill that included an exceedingly modest pot of money for scholarships for early-childhood education but not the early ed quality ratings program that would have ensured that the families that get the money use it on top-notch care.

The brainchild of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), the Parent Aware rating system would have identified high-quality early-ed programs, steered the fragile families that rely on public child-care subsidies toward them and rewarded providers that deliver top results.

Five years of research and monitoring showed that test scores rose and mobility virtually disappeared among children enrolled in St. Paul programs that participated in the pilot phase of “Parent Aware.” Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Bank data demonstrates that every dollar the state invests in top-notch early childhood education returns $16 to the economy.

Early in the year broad bipartisan support made the revenue-neutral bill to expand the quality ratings system statewide —authored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie — appear to be a shoo-in. But then in March, acting largely at the behest of a group with strong ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann, the House GOP leadership quietly killed that portion of the bill.

Fearful it would usurp parents’ role
The reason: It would have created a nanny state — the measure’s foes did not intend to be ironic — that would usurp the rightful role of parents in children’s lives.

With the Tea Party largely absent from the shutdown negotiating table and virtually no dollars at stake, many advocates were mystified that Parent Aware wasn’t reborn in the final compromise. Great early ed, it’s nearly universally agreed, is the most cost-effective way to fix the other structural problem plaguing Minnesota’s once-great school systems: the achievement gap.

Duane Benson
Duane Benson

In the wee hours of the morning after the special session, Duane Benson, the velvet-gloved force who directs MELF, hatched a modest proposal for seeing that a quality-ratings system does get implemented this year before the business-led nonprofit quietly closes its doors. Trust a onetime GOP Senate minority leader to figure out how to end-run the Legislature.

Gov. Mark Dayton, Benson suggested, should enact the statewide ratings system by executive action and then require that the scholarships that somehow survived the bloodbath be tied to them, as originally planned. Benson did not add, but I will, that this would once again put Minnesota in the running for a slice of some $500 million in new Race to the Top federal stimulus funding aimed at pre-K.

14 states did it administratively
He didn’t just make this up, either: 14 of the 21 states that have adopted quality ratings systems (of varied, um, quality) did so administratively, precisely because the U.S. government requires states to be good stewards of federal tax dollars. States make rules all the time concerning transportation funding, social-service spending, and so on.

It has never been the purview of lawmakers to “nod and sway” over every dollar the feds funnel to state executive branches for redistribution, Benson noted: “If they wanted to do that, their part time jobs would be a lot more full time.”

Administered by the Department of Human Services, the child-care-assistance program (CCAP) accounts for about $300 million of the $400 million Minnesota spends on early education. The funds for the program, both state and federal, are governed by federal regulations that direct states to use at least 4 percent to improve quality. Because DHS has authority over those funds and writes the plan for administering them, Benson reasoned, it is within executive authority to use the funds for Parent Aware. 

Possible repercussions?
An angry Legislature could vote the program out of existence next year, but given the amount of GOP support the initiative enjoyed until late in the game, that’s not likely to happen, he said. And if it did, Dayton could simply veto the bill.

“If you don’t like what we’re proposing you must like what we have, and hardly anyone does,” Benson said yesterday. “With this, you know what you’re getting — and that’s high quality.”

I’m pretty sure they didn’t have great early ed in Machiavelli’s times — if they did, they wouldn’t have needed all those scribes — but my guess is that the prince, author of both political works and comedies, is beaming.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/02/2011 - 10:54 am.

    I’ve seldom had anything positive to say about either business “leaders” or Republicans since moving here, so it’s refreshing to have Mr. Benson provide me with a reason to make an exception. This proposal sounds to me like both good policy and good strategy. The right-wing idiots who oppose it will be sending their children to some other facilities anyway, or keeping them at home, so there’s no reason to allow the lunatic Bachmann-leaning group (I can’t remember the name) to condemn the children of those whose means are modest to a lifetime of trying to overcome a built-in disadvantage.

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