Guest Opinion: Early learning scholarships bridge the urban-rural divide

Much has been said and written lately about a rural-urban divide in America. It’s increasingly apparent that sound public policy has to help families in communities of every description—urban, suburban, exurban, and rural. Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships is exactly that kind of policy.

Scholarships address an urgent problem that schools and communities are facing in every corner of the state. Nearly half of Minnesota’s children are arriving in kindergarten unprepared. Too many kids never catch up and eventually drop out of school. Dropouts earn less and generate higher taxpayer costs throughout their lifetime. That’s a huge problem for all of us. Minnesota needs an educated workforce to compete in the global economy. An educated workforce makes for healthy, prosperous communities.

High quality early childcare and early education is the way to get kids ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. But for too many Minnesota kids, these programs are out of reach. Tragically, about 40,000 low-income Minnesota children under five years old are unable to access the quality early learning programs they need to get prepared for school and life.

These at-risk children are in every community in Minnesota. About half of sholarship-eligible low-income children are in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, and half are in greater Minnesota.

But how can one policy solution work as well in Minneapolis, Mankato and Motley? After all, some Minnesota communities have many different choices available for childcare and early learning programs, and others have few to choose from.

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Here’s how the 2017 session could impact education in Minnesota


Gov. Mark Dayton has spent much of his six years in office building a legacy largely focused on increasing the funding and reach of the public school system, especially for the state’s youngest learners.

To cement that legacy, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor governor has to work his last two years in office with a House and Senate led by Republicans who often have different ideas on what is best for Minnesota’s public schools. Many of those ideas about education spending and policy have sparked past battles between Dayton and GOP lawmakers.

Among issues on the table this legislative session are which teachers get laid off when budgets get cut, how to license educators, how to keep schools accountable for the progress of their students, and school choice.

Legislators and the governor also need to agree on a budget in which education spending is one of the largest pieces. In the current two-year budget, $17 billion will be spent on education, about 41 percent of the total.

Republicans say they largely agree with Dayton and Democrats’ main objective of closing the state’s persistent achievement gap between students of color and their peers, but they often disagree on the best ways to make progress.

“I anticipate we will focus on what is best for students and what works,” said Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who will chair the education division of the Senate Finance Committee. She acknowledged that closing academic gaps will be a top priority. “We’ve been talking about it for years; it’s time to do something about it.”

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Child Care Scarcity Has Very Real Consequences For Working Families

January 3, 20177:00 AM ET
Heard on All Things Considered


One of the most stressful questions a new parent confronts is, “Who’s going to take care of my baby when I go back to work?”

Figuring out the answer to that question is often not easy. When NPR, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed more than 1,000 parents nationwide about their child care experiences, a third reported difficulty finding care.

Searching far and wide, finding little

Megan Carpenter, a new mother who lives in Alexandria, Va., knows well the feeling of desperation that can come with the search for safe, quality infant care.

She had a hard deadline — 16 weeks after her baby was born her maternity leave would end and she would have to return to her job at a nonprofit that serves homeless and low-income women. So she and her husband started looking for child care early, only a few months into her pregnancy.

“At our first few interviews we were asking a lot of questions and were really trying to get a feel for the place,” Carpenter recalls. “And by place 10 or 11, our only question was, ‘Do you have a spot?’ ”

The answer to that question, time and again, was “no.” That meant getting on a lot of waitlists — and paying a hefty, nonrefundable waitlist fee each time.

“There were a lot of places that were totally willing to take our $100 or $200 waitlist fee,” Carpenter says. “We spent over $1,000 in waitlist fees — many of which I never heard from again.”

By the time baby Cora arrived, the couple still had no prospects.



Editorial: Coordinating ideas around Minnesota’s early-childhood work

While research confirms the value of early- childhood advocates’ efforts, a hometown lawmaker observed that their work wasn’t necessarily in sync.

When he arrived at the Minnesota Capitol after his election in 2014, Rep. Dave Pinto — long interested in the issue — expected to find clarity about an agenda and direction, based on growing consensus about the value of public investment in early education.

Instead, there were a number of agendas, the St. Paul Democrat told us.

He found that, with varied groups working on such efforts, “often they’re parallel, often they overlap, sometimes they may conflict.”

That makes it hard for legislators, who might agree in general on the matter, Pinto told us, to “cut through the clutter” and figure out “where do we go, where do we focus our efforts, what do we do?”

In an effort that uses what he describes as a lawmaker’s leverage to “convene,” Pinto helped bring them together via a quarterly Prenatal-to-Three Policy Forum series that began last summer. The next such session will be Jan. 6 at the University of St. Thomas.


How Investing In Preschool Beats The Stock Market, Hands Down

If you got 13 percent back on your investments every year, you’d be pretty happy, right? Remember, the S&P 500, historically, has averaged about 7 percent when adjusted for inflation.

What if the investment is in children, and the return on investment not only makes economic sense but results in richer, fuller, healthier lives for the entire family?

That’s the crux of a new paper out Monday, The Life-Cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program, co-authored by Nobel laureate James Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago and the director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development.

But there’s surprisingly little research on its impact over time. This paper helps change that. Heckman and his co-authors examine the many ways in which these high-quality programs helped participants thrive throughout life.

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We learned a lot in 2016 about how preschool can help kids

Claudio Sanchez · ·

One of the most controversial questions in education has been whether preschool — and specifically Head Start — helps kids succeed as they move through elementary school.

Critics have long noted, and research has supported, that the benefits of Head Start fade in a few years. It’s an important question for an $8 billion federal program that provides support for nearly a million low-income children and their families.

This year brought several new studies, however, that found that — when done right — Head Start and other programs can give low-income students lasting benefits. It’s not only through elementary school: At least one study we wrote about found the benefits of preschool paying off for individuals, and society, into adult life.

All this research, however, was no blanket endorsement. Some of this year’s findings reinforced earlier studies showing the uneven quality of Head Start programs around the country.

And so the lessons from 2016 seem to reinforce the emphasis — by President Obama and others — on quality.

One of the most closely watched attempts in the country to provide universal, high-quality preschool has been in Oklahoma. In 1998, the state became one of only two states to offer universal preschool.

Today, the vast majority of Oklahoma’s programs are in public schools. The rest are run by child care centers or Head Start.

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Star Tribune: Keep child care costs affordable for all Minnesotans


Editorial Board, Star Tribune

January, 22, 2016

Minnesota child care tends to be good — and expensive. That means that high-quality child care and preschool are also in short supply, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and sparsely populated portions of the state.

In previous years, recognition that those circumstances spell trouble for the state’s economy as well as for families and children has been spotty at the Legislature. Fortunately, that’s changing. Last week, House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt appointed a “select committee on affordable child care” and announced that it would conduct statewide hearings in February to probe the problem and consider remedies. It’s to be headed by a former child care provider, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria.

We’ll take that as reason for hope that a better day may be dawning for Minnesotans burdened by child care costs that often exceed the cost of public college tuition — and that bipartisan cooperation might help make it so.

Last session, Republicans and DFLers came together on a strategy to both offer more need-based scholarships for high-quality preschool and enable more school districts to become preschool providers. This should be the year when a similar coalition emerges to address the everyday, full-day needs of the young children of working parents…

Star Tribune: A voice of higher ed — Robert Bruininks — is pretty keen on early ed


Lori Sturdevant, Star Tribune

January 22, 2016

“I really hope they put some additional money into early education,” Bruininks said. “They’ve simply got to keep investing in the early years.”

Bruininks’ zeal for the topic is good news. He could be just the thing the early ed rivals of 2015 need to become early ed allies in 2016 — a sage, nonpartisan policy broker with decades of educational expertise to bring to bear. When he’s back in the cold in a few weeks, he could be an important advocate for early education policies that help Minnesota continue to be the Brainpower State as its population evolves.

Before he was president of the University of Minnesota, Bruininks was a university professor of educational psychology and dean of the College of Education and Human Development. While he was president from 2002 to 2011, he trucked and tangled with governors and legislators and gained appreciation for their power to shape this state.

That background made Bruininks a keen observer of one of the big tussles of the 2015 legislative session. This one wasn’t DFL vs. Republican or metro vs. rural. It was preschool scholarships for needy children vs. school-based preschool for every 4-year-old in the state…


Minnesota kindergartners ease into first grade after a year with all-day kindergarten


Britta Arendt, Grand Rapids Herald-Review
September 9, 2015

Of the more than 847,000 students heading back to school across Minnesota this fall, approximately 58,800 are kindergartners – 99.6 percent of whom are attending school all-day, free of charge.

Before implementation of state legislation passed in 2014, 54 percent of Minnesota children had access to all-day kindergarten, according to information released by the Minnesota Department of Education.

“Last year was the first time we provided Minnesota families with access to free, all-day kindergarten, and the response was overwhelming,” said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “More children were enrolled in kindergarten than we projected, showing how truly necessary and important this investment was for Minnesotans. By offering kindergarten to every child, at no cost, we are breaking down barriers of access and ensuring every child has a strong foundation that will propel them forward for success in the future. Each year, as more students are able to benefit from this investment, I know we will see achievement gaps continue to close throughout Minnesota.”



Key House committee rejects universal, all-day preschool bill


Hank Long, Waseca County News
February 24, 2015

A bill that would give school districts the opportunity to offer all-day preschool to 4-year-olds stalled Tuesday in the House Education Innovation Policy Committee.

Rep. Erin Murphy (DFL-St. Paul) began her push for universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten in the public schools during the 2014 legislative session, saying Minnesotans are frustrated with the Legislature’s delay in fully investing in early learning opportunities for all children. This year, the proposal came forth in the form of HF46.

It would allow eligibility for children who are 4 years old on Sept. 1 and not enrolled in kindergarten to participate in a universal, all-day preschool program run by public schools.

After several hours of testimony on the bill, including an initial hearing last week, the committee voted 11-8 along party lines to reject the bill.

A companion, SF6, sponsored by Sen. John Hoffman (DFL-Champlin), was tabled Jan. 21 by the Senate E-12 Budget Division.

Committee Chair Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) reminded Murphy and committee members that HF844 – which contains Gov. Mark Dayton’s K-12 education budget proposal in bill form – includes a version of universal, voluntary preschool similar to Murphy’s bill and that it will receive continued discussion in the coming weeks…

More than Daycare: Resarch Shapes New Focus on Early Learning


Heidi Enninga, WDIO – Duluth
February 24, 2015

When parents drop kids off at daycare each morning they expect their little ones will be in a safe and fun environment, but local providers and early childhood experts now say expectations about daycare are changing in order to make sure kids start kindergarten on par with their peers.

Daycare providers are the people you entrust to make sure your children not only have enough to eat, but the right things to eat, and that they have lots of time to play and stretch their minds.

It’s all because children under five are already on their education journey even though they’re spending their days in daycare and not yet a classroom. Even these early years before kindergarten are some of the most critical for learning.

Lynn Haglin, Kids Plus Director with the Northland Foundation said research has changed the line of thinking about early childhood.

“We now know so much about early brain development,” Haglin said.

In fact, by the time your child reaches kindergarten age, 90 percent of brain development is already complete.

“People are becoming more and more aware, from even prior to birth, that learning is taking place.”

So some Northland providers are trying to do even more for their kids. April Hall runs Aunty’s Daycare in West Duluth. Already she tries to expose the children at her daycare to nutrition and health information.

“My daycare kids can tell you what vitamins are in a lemon, what part of your body it’s good for. that avocados are good for your brain,” Hall said.

These providers are going beyond the minimum health and safety standards required for daycare licensing.

Mary Young has been a daycare provider in Carlton for 32 years and said there’s pressure from schools.

“The schools want us to get children ready, and that’s talked about more and more,” Young said.

The Northland Foundation said that in 2003, just 50 percent of children entered kindergarten fully prepared. That number has increased over the years. Now, the Minnesota Department of Education reports school readiness is at 70 percent. That’s thanks in part to a big push on healthy development in children birth to age five.

This month, nearly 370 childcare providers got training in Duluth from a program called Parent Aware Pathways. It teaches those caring for kids how to capitalize on the window of opportunity in early childhood.



MN near bottom in on-time graduation for students of color


Tim Post,MPR
February 19, 2015

For the third year in a row, Minnesota lags the rest of the country in on-time graduation for students of color.

Fewer than 60 percent of the state’s black and Hispanic students graduate in four years, according to an MPR News analysis of the most recent federal data on state graduation rates, from the 2012-13 school year. The rate for the state’s Native American students is the second worst in the nation at 49 percent.

Minnesota has the worst or second-worst graduation rates among reporting states in all four non-white student categories. No other state is in the bottom five in all four groups, and only Oregon comes close with three races in the bottom five.