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Early-ed advocates hope to expand scholarships, end per-child cap

Rep. Ryan Winkler has introduced legislation to increase scholarship money from $20 million to $150 million a year by 2017.

Never mind the long list of groups eyeing the state’s projected $1.1 budget surplus, advocates are betting they can make the case that full funding for early-childhood education scholarships for needy families should top the list.

Rep. Ryan Winkler

Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, has already introduced legislation proposing to increase the amount of scholarship money available from $20 million to $150 million a year by 2017. The bill would also replace a controversial $5,000-a-year cap on scholarships with a system to award funds according to the average cost of care based on geographic location.

The changes would represent a dramatic step toward ensuring that all 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families have access to high-quality early education — something researchers are convinced can stop the achievement gap from opening in the first place.

But it would eat up all or most of the $300 million to $400 million of the surplus that would be left over after school and airport shifts are paid back and Gov. Mark Dayton’s business-to-business and middle-class tax cuts are accounted for.

Every year half of Minnesota’s entering kindergarteners aren’t considered ready. Many will lag further and further behind, costing the state an estimated $860 million a year in avoidable criminal-justice, special-education and social-welfare and health-care expenditures.

Now only money for 9% of those eligible

Right now there is enough money for 4,000 scholarships a year, addressing the needs of about 9 percent of eligible children. The bigger pool would provide scholarships to three-fourths of those eligible, or 20,000 a year, the voluntary participation rate scholars who have researched programs in other states expect.

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Making the cap more flexible would reduce the risk that recipients, already the children with the least stability in their lives, will have to drop out of programs that provide consistency.

“The research is very clear that the kids at the greatest risk of falling behind are the kids that benefit the most,” said Winkler. “This would provide stability for the kids whose families are the most unstable.”

Fully funding the program also would drive quality in underserved regions of the state as child-care facilities accelerate the pace at which they invest in the quality elements needed to serve families with scholarships.

“You have a $2 billion private sector in child care” in Minnesota, Winkler added. “You can use that [scholarship] money as leverage to raise standards. Once you’ve done that, every child benefits.”

MinneMinds, a statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations and advocates that have pursued a system for steering state tuition grants for disadvantaged children to high-quality programs, applauded the bill’s introduction.

‘Hopeful and optimistic’

“The advocates are as fired up as they’ve ever been,” said Frank Forsberg, chair of MinneMinds and of the Greater Twin Cities United Way. “I’m hopeful and optimistic we can keep the lawmakers engaged. Last year was such a big investment year.”

A separate measure introduced Monday by St. Paul DFL Rep. Erin Murphy would extend universal pre-K to all Minnesota 4-year-olds. Under the bill, those not covered by scholarships could attend programs operated by local school districts. 

It’s too early for the Minnesota Department of Education to have positions on 2014 legislation, said agency Chief of Staff Charlene Briner. “It’s not unexpected that people want to leverage our momentum,” she said. 

As broad as support for expanding access to quality pre-K programming has become in recent years, the scholarship program has had a surprisingly tough trajectory. A decade ago after the administration of then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashed state day-care subsidies for poor families, he and other GOP leaders told children’s advocates they needed to prove early ed was worth the investment of public funds.

Bolstered by then-unprecedented research by economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald showing a return to the economy of up to $16 for each tax dollar invested, advocates won over the business and philanthropic communities.

A broad coalition of organizations, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation spent $20 million in private funds between 2006 and 2011 first researching how to identify and quantify high-quality early ed and then piloting a system for steering fragile families toward the best programs.

The resulting ratings system, Parent Aware for School Readiness, enjoyed bipartisan support at the start of the 2011 legislative session. After the bill died a backroom death partway through the session, Gov. Mark Dayton used rulemaking authority to expand the pilot, which was already established in state law.

Last session, $40 million for biennium

In the following, equally deadlocked session, he persuaded the Legislature to appropriate $3 million a year — a pittance, but also a placeholder for a meaningful funding stream. Last year lawmakers came up with $40 million, spread over the biennium.

Late in the session, however, the Minnesota Department of Education weighed in, arguing that the scholarships, which were to have averaged $6,000 a year per child, should be capped at $5,000. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius’ reasoning: To stretch the money to aid more kids.

Poverty rates are almost identical in the metro area and Greater Minnesota, but not every region had programs that could demonstrate the quality required to enroll Parent Aware recipients. Because the system’s designers wanted the scholarships to serve as a carrot, they extended eligibility for partial scholarships to programs that were working toward becoming highly rated.

The scholarships are set up so that once one child has secured one, siblings automatically receive funds, too. Children of teen mothers are also automatically granted scholarships. 

“Once you start making those accommodations you start eating into the pool,” said Briner. “The number of kids you can impact becomes substantially fewer.”

But because $5,000 comes nowhere near the cost of preschool in many places, MinneMinds’ leaders had lobbied for scholarships tied to the average cost of care in each region. The gains kids make in the programs don’t make up for what’s lost if their funding runs out partway through the year, they argued.

At the same time, some school districts and the state’s largest teachers union, Education Minnesota, joined some state officials in arguing that it was tough to justify giving more state money to a private child-care facility than the approximately $5,800 in baseline state tuition dollars that follows each K-12 student.

As Parent Aware dollars began flowing last fall, the regional agencies that help families secure both qualifying programs and scholarships began talking about “layering” early-ed assistance. Ideally families that qualify would also be enrolled in the remnants of the Child Care Assistance Program, the state Department of Human Services’ badly oversubscribed subsidy program.

A senior policy analyst at Think Small, which is administering the program in the metro area and the Arrowhead region, Kat Kempe said her agency has about 1,000 scholarships to hand out. The organization received 1,200 applications in November, the first month the grants were available. To date, it has received more than 2,500.

“Any conversation about changing the policy needs to lead with investment,” said MDE’s Briner. “If you just lift the cap without increasing the investment you’re going to end up taking scholarships away from folks.”

Winkler, for one, thinks chances are good his colleagues will support doing both: “There’s strong support in the House for removing the cap and strong support in the Legislature for adding more money.”