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Parent Aware for School Readiness gives Minnesota B+ for early-ed progress

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Taking a card from the playbook of good educators everywhere, Parent Aware for School Readiness heaped praise on effort expended but also made it clear policymakers will have to really, really stretch if they want an A.

Talk about grading on a curve. In the space of two years, Minnesota creates a statewide system for measuring quality in pre-K programs, a mechanism for steering its neediest kids toward the best and money to begin paying for it all, and advocates award it a B+?

On Monday, the business nonprofit that designed and piloted the systems and then pushed for their adoption issued its first report card [PDF]. Taking a card from the playbook of good educators everywhere, it heaped praise on effort expended but also made it clear policymakers will have to really, really stretch if they want an A.

“We’ve made great progress,” said Ericca Maas, executive director of Parent Aware for School Readiness. “We’re all finally lined up and working in the same direction.”

Emphasis on finally. A decade ago, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty made dramatic cuts to what was then nearly universally referred to as child care — a social welfare program. He said he’d think about turning the taps back on if advocates for the programs could prove that it was money well spent.

Armed with research from economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald, both then at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, showing that preschool’s return on the public dollar was as high as 18 to one, the advocates set out to change the conversation.

Yes, subsidies would enable impoverished parents to hold jobs. But they could also ensure that their children entered kindergarten ready to learn, dramatically ratcheting up their chances of graduating high school college- or career-ready.

Discouraged that Pawlenty’s majority GOP was not more responsive, leaders from Minnesota’s business community began pushing to give early ed a formal place at the policy table. In 2005, a Who’s Who of the state’s largest employers, together with civic and philanthropic leaders, joined forces as the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF).

Using $20 million in private, donated dollars, MELF set out to define high quality in the pre-K environment and to definitively link it to outcomes. It then raised more money to pilot Parent Aware, a system built using the research in a handful of Minnesota communities. Given needed funding and clear information, it proved, parents would use their money to buy the best care.

With three years of positive outcomes to report, the group took its case to the 2011 Legislature, only to have an initial rush of bipartisan support die an ideological death as part of some wee-hours deal-making. The following year, lawmakers came up with a paltry $2 million for 2013 and $3 million for 2014 — enough to satisfy 1 percent of the need.

In the meantime, MELF had become Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR), a leaner effort by many of the same business leaders to make sure that the mission was fulfilled. The group was one of the leaders of MinneMinds, a broad statewide campaign to persuade the 2013 Legislature to prime the scholarship pipeline.

Back to the report card. “During the 2013 session the number of state-funded scholarships available each year grew from 460 to 4,067,” PASR reported Monday. “Despite this increase, however, at least 17,000 eligible children will remain trapped on waiting lists or in low-quality programming. To ‘move the needle’ on school readiness, we need to get all low-income Minnesota kids off of waiting lists and into high-quality early education.”

PASR gave the state an A+ for using the data and the system to compete successfully for a $45 million 2012 federal Race to the Top early childhood grant that gave Parent Aware a major boost. Officials got a B+ for the $40 million appropriated in this year’s session for scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds.

They handed out a C, however, for ease of use of the scholarships, noting that a decision to cap them at $5,000 per child per year is not nearly enough to pay many families’ tuition. “Capped scholarship amounts present a serious usability issue,” the report noted. “Flexible amounts are necessary to ensure kids are getting the level of programming necessary to be school ready.”

And the grade for ongoing state funding reform efforts was a B, reflecting PASR’s disappointment that lawmakers did not take up the question of tying the state’s largest pre-K subsidy effort, the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to Parent Aware’s ratings. This means there is no incentive for parents to use the lion’s share of the money, some $200 million a year, on the most effective programs.

Administered by the state Department of Human Services, CCAP is what’s left of the longstanding child-care subsidy system. It has a three-year waiting list and, because it was never intended to position kids as ready for school, does not reward quality.

Only 1,000 of Minnesota’s 12,000 to 13,000 early-childhood programs have stepped up to be reviewed for a Parent Aware rating. Those that have are eligible for higher reimbursement under the scholarship system. PASR had been pushing to extend the incentives to the rest.

A similar frustration underlies the lone F the group handed out, for lawmakers’ failure during the last two sessions to consider tax credits for child-care providers who volunteer for to enter Parent Aware, for child-care workers who get additional education and stay on the job
 at rated programs and for private donors who support scholarships or quality efforts.

Because the scholarships are just one of several revenue streams families may be able to tap to help pay for preschool, parents can’t negotiate the system without the assistance of the social service agencies that administer the programs in each county. Some funding sources are available to entire counties or cities, while others may be open to residents of specific neighborhoods.

Equally confusing, a family with a CCAP child-care subsidy can apply for a scholarship to pay for the portion of their bills the subsidy doesn’t cover, and vice versa. In an effort to get kids into more expensive high-quality programs, the state specifically encourages this “layering.”

The group gave itself an “improving” grade of B- for promotional efforts to raise awareness of the program with parents and among providers.

And with the scholarships just ramping up, there will be opportunities for further input. Formerly known as Resources for Child Caring, the nonprofit Think Small has been responsible for administering CCAP subsidies for Ramsey County and Parent Aware scholarships for St. Paul.

The organization is waiting to learn if it will continue in the second role as the program scales up. Also to be determined: How Parent Aware’s goal of showcasing quality programming will square with the subsidy program’s longstanding policy of neutrality regarding the quality of the referrals it hands out.

With a new school year looming, the hope is to start granting scholarships as soon as possible. The state’s relatively new Office of Early Learning has been scrambling to put in place systems for distributing the scholarships and working with providers in counties throughout the state.

Still, “From a parent’s perspective, it’s glacially slow,” said Kat Kempe, senior policy associate at Think Small.

“Our hope is [the new system] gets more and more streamlined, and gets more and more kids into high-quality programs,” said Maas. “Obviously part of our drive is to get it working as simply as possible.”

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