Should Minnesota invest money into early childhood education, and if so, what programs should be supported?
Experts tackled the questions at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce Legislative Breakfast series May 8 in St. Louis Park. Panel members included Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie), chair of the House education finance committee; Sen. Melisa Franzen (DFL-Edina), higher education and workforce development committee; Carrie Lucking, director of the Policy, Research and Outreach department for Education Minnesota, the teachers’ union; and Art Rolnick, senior fellow and codirector of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
While each speaker had varying views on where the money could go, they all agreed that contributing funds to early childhood education is the one of the best places to begin to start closing the state’s large achievement gap.
“Why early childhood? That’s where it all starts,” said Rolnick a longtime supporter of the concept going back to his days as senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “That’s what all the research says.”
“There’s a lot of skepticism if this is an area we should be delving into with public dollars,” Loon added. “You cannot have an educated workforce that’s going to keep Minnesota’s economy strong if you’re leaving a good portion of your students behind.”
She said the education finance committee has received large amounts of testimony lately regarding the education of children up to age 4.
“The question is how to get those kids into school at a level with their peers in kindergarten, ready to achieve,” she said.
Lucking said that, when looking at the budgets proposed at the Legislature, many have money devoted to scholarships for children from birth to age 3.
“Those are some really good ideas that should be funded,” she said. “So the real question a lot of us are posing is, what do you really do with 4-year-olds?”
Lucking said she believes the best option is to provide universal, public pre-K education for that age group. She said this would offer the tenets that research has shown to provide the best quality early education — high-quality teachers engaged in best practices, students placed in diverse classrooms and curriculum that is aligned for pre-K through third grade.
This approach would also get the biggest “bang for the buck,” she said.
“Dollars that go into public pre-K go much more directly to students and to education than via scholarships because there isn’t the administrative costs and bureaucracy of means testing and paperwork,” Lucking said. “There isn’t the cost of developing yet another quality rating system. … If you want money to go to kids … the best way to do it most efficiently is through a public system.”
But Franzen questioned whether the public system could handle such a program right now.
“I don’t know believe we’re ready for all-day pre-K,” she said. “We just rolled out all-day kindergarten. We have some issues there with capacity.”
Franzen said she would like to “split the baby” by putting money into public school readiness programs, scholarships and health care programs that would apply to the same students.
“All of them should be funded at some level that’s reasonable,” she said.
Rolnick, however, said that early childhood education scholarships for the most at-risk children offer the greatest return and these should be fully funded. He noted that the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation found that money invested in scholarships for these students showed an 18 percent inflation-adjusted return.
“Once you move up the income ladder, the return becomes smaller and smaller.” he said.
Rolnick added that this position was not a knock on public schools, saying more than a third of scholarship students choose to attend public schools and receive high-quality educations.
“Of course we need public schools,” he said. “But let the parents decide — not the bureaucracy.”
Loon said the House’s position is that the state should provide funding to both school readiness programs and scholarships for low-income students. This would build on a successful education system but also continue to reach more children in need, she said.
“These are both good avenues for expanding early childhood opportunities and would be very helpful,” she said.
Whatever avenue is taken at the end of the Legislative session, Loon said any additional money provided to early childhood education is a victory.
“Take the win,” she said.
Contact Derek Bartos at [email protected]