Gov. Mark Dayton said today that the state will expand a ratings system for daycare and early childhood education providers across Minnesota.
It's a move he says will bolster the state's chances to win a competitive federal grant called "Race to the Top" later this year.
Dayton said he can use existing laws to expand the early childhood ratings system. The move comes after weeks of debate over whether he or anyone else had such powers.
"This is an incredible tool for parents to help them find quality places for their young children, and to help be assured they'll be in places where their children will be supported and ready for kindergarten," said Barb Yates, an early childhood advocate who will chair a new Early Learning Council the governor announced today.
The ratings system has enjoyed widespread, though not universal, support in Minnesota. A group called the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation raised private funds to establish a pilot program in a handful of areas, including St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.
The ratings were coupled with scholarships for low-income families so they could send their children to places with the highest ratings for free.
With that pilot program ending this year, there was an effort to get lawmakers to pass legislation, expanding the system statewide.
But that plan ran into opposition from lawmakers like Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the House Education Reform Committee.
"In my area of Minnesota, my providers don't want it. They don't even want it on a voluntary basis because it's just more government in their faces," said Erickson.
When that sentiment prevailed in the Legislature, the ratings system was voted down.
Advocates like the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation quickly expressed worry that the lack of such a system would prevent Minnesota from winning as much as $50 million in the federal "No Child Left Behind" competition. The U.S. Education Department plans to announce winners of that money by year's end.
With that timeline in place, and with no more legislative session scheduled in 2011, the early learning foundation wanted Dayton to create the ratings system by executive order, and without lawmakers.
Dayton said Wednesday not even an executive order is necessary because a review of current laws found the authority is already there. It's something the governor says he wasn't aware of until recently.
"I don't know who was aware of it and who wasn't, but it came to light in the final discussions."
Former Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick, who has long studied and touted positive returns from investing in early childhood efforts, was one of those advocates worried about the state's chances for "Race to the Top" money.
He said today's statement is a relief.
"I think there was some confusion about whether that legislation exists or not. There's no confusion anymore; that legislation exists. This is a big part - this is a critical element of applying for "Race to the Top" and we have that now in place."
Rep. Erickson, who still opposes the ratings system, says she is "befuddled" by the governor's statement that the power existed all along.
After reading the law, Erickson conceded she could see where the governor could use it.
"At least for 'Race to the Top,' I can see where they could use this to suggest that they're going to go statewide. Whether or not they really can is another matter, but at least in the application they can use this," said Erickson.
Erickson said she's disappointed she didn't know about the law before now. It was passed during a two-year period when she was out of the Legislature. If she'd known about the law, Erickson says she'd have tried to change it this year.