Stadiums vs. early childhood education: When do the kids get their turn?

Art Rolnick
Art Rolnick, senior fellow and codirector of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
Submitted photo

Art Rolnick, senior fellow and codirector of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, is former director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Back in 2002, I had an engaging conversation with John Cowles Jr. (former CEO of the Cowles Media Company and parent company of the Star Tribune) concerning public priorities. Cowles applauded my work on early childhood education (ECE). However, he strongly disagreed with my view that no state or local government should be subsidizing professional sports teams. He argued that we could have it all -- that both sport teams and ECE could and should be funded.

While I reluctantly agreed that professional sports had some public value beyond the private gains of players and owners, I was skeptical that the public could fund both.

Now roughly 10 years have passed. Over this past decade, the state of Minnesota along with some local government partners has found a way to finance several professional teams. The Minnesota Timberwolves' subsidy was more than $100 million, along with some lingering obligations. The Minnesota Wild's subsidy was also in the $100 million range. The subsidy to the Minnesota Twins (who must be at least twice as valuable to the state) exceeded $250 million, and now it looks like the Minnesota Vikings are going to get more than $650 million.

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Bottom line: Over 10 years, our privately owned professional teams will have been granted more than $1 billion in public subsides. And the kids are still waiting. Or should I say they have been left behind?

Why are we are so generous with these professional sports teams, while we tax virtually all other private businesses in this state? Surely it is not about job creation, because all successful businesses in Minnesota create jobs; most of our industries create far more jobs than the entertainment industry generally and professional sports teams in particular.

The obvious reason we are so generous is the underlying economic threat (a k a blackmail): If you don't build that stadium, we will be off to some other state that will. Indeed, according to the Star Tribune, that is exactly what the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell told Gov. Mark Dayton when he visited Minnesota recently. Goodell's message was that Los Angeles' desire for a football team makes it all the more important that Minnesota resolve the stadium issue.

So while I understand the politics of this type of economic blackmail, I still question Cowles' assertion that we can have both. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on privately owned professional sports teams, yet we are failing to fund a much better public investment in our most at-risk children.

Why do you think the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is growing around the country? The movement is fundamentally a protest against this type of power politics that favors the very rich. Over the past 10 years, public funding of quality early childhood education and child care has declined. And the decline has come despite overwhelming research that shows extraordinary returns from high-quality early education for our most at-risk children.

So when do the children get their turn? When do we get to invest $650 million to ensure that all children start school healthy and ready to learn?

I suspect the answer will be that the kids will have to wait at least another decade, and even then professional sports will likely trump the kids. Even though they are a better investment, kids have no leverage with our public officials. They cannot threaten to leave. They do not vote. Their problems are invisible to most of us. Their parents have little if any political or financial clout to lobby effectively.

Moreover, we are told that a Vikings stadium is urgent, that they have been patiently waiting on the sidelines for their public funding and cannot wait any longer.

I have trouble understanding the rush to build another stadium for the Vikings, one of the more successful franchises in the NFL. But I know from years of research that our kids cannot wait. The earliest years of a child's life are critical for brain and health development. The research is clear: If kids do not start school healthy and ready to learn, their chances of succeeding in school and life fall dramatically.

Our kids' education can no longer be delayed. Surely, if we can find a way to fund another edifice for a privately owned sports team, we can find a way to fund ECE.

Maybe it is time for the leadership and the media in Minnesota to stand up for the best public investment we can make. Maybe we the public should demand that before the state spends anther dime on a sports team, we invest $650 million to create an endowed fund so that we can finance ECE scholarships for every child living in poverty in the Twin Cities, with the ultimate goal of funding every poor child in Minnesota. That investment would truly enhance the quality of life in Minnesota for all. And it would keep us competitive not only with the rest of the country but with the rest of the world.

When do the children get their turn?