Federal funding is a great step for early childhood education, but there's more to do

Art Rolnick
Arthur J. Rolnick: It is time for the state of Minnesota to step to the plate again for education and the economy.
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.

Last week the federal government announced that Minnesota had been awarded a Race to the Top grant focused on early childhood education. The grant is for $45 million over four years. The state of Minnesota should match this grant year by year, and at least dollar for dollar.

The Race to the Top grants were not awarded by lottery. To the contrary, the awards were based on years of hard work and commitment by many early childhood advocates around the state. Most notable were the efforts of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF).

While many of us think of Minnesota as the education state, roughly half of our children do not start school healthy and ready to learn. And research shows that when kids start school far behind they don't catch up. Many of those kids drop out of high school and are much more likely to struggle in our society. Indeed, criminologists claim that they can predict the need for prisons in the future by the number of children who are not proficient in reading by the third grade.

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However, research also shows that high-quality early childhood education and development, starting as early as prenatal development, can go a long way in assuring that children thrive in school and succeed in life. The question, then, is how to create an early childhood education system that is cost effective, high quality and can readily be brought to scale.

MELF was established five years ago to address this question. Headed by Duane Benson and supported by many of the top corporate leaders in our state, MELF's work has received national and international attention. MELF invested $20 million (raised privately) to establish two flagship initiatives. The first was a quality rating system (named Parent Aware) to assess early childhood education programs around the Twin Cities and in Blue Earth and Nicollet Counties. The second was a scholarship and parent-mentoring pilot in a low-income area in St. Paul. The scholarships were relatively user friendly, but could only be applied in programs that were highly rated.

The scholarship-and-mentoring pilot is being closely monitored, and the results are promising. Children showed significant increases in language and early math skills, and the number of high-quality programs in and near the pilot area increased more than 55 percent. As this pilot demonstrates — and as previous studies have shown before — this is the best economic investment a community can make. To be clear, taxpayers' money invested in early childhood development is economic development; it not only creates jobs in our economy today, but it creates a quality workforce and sustainable jobs well into the future.

We should know this in Minnesota. It was the state's commitment decades ago to provide a quality education system that made Minnesota one of the most successful economies in our country. So now it is time for the state of Minnesota to step to the plate again for education and the economy. The federal government, through the Race to the Top grant for early childhood education, has spoken; the future of Minnesota's kids is critical to the success of Minnesota's economy.

Half of our children not being ready for school means that about 30,000 Minnesota kids are behind from the start. Of those 30,000, many are children living in poverty who will likely not catch up. The grant is a good first step in helping these children arrive at kindergarten prepared to succeed, but we have many more steps to take before all of Minnesota's children start school healthy and ready to learn, now and in the future.

Consequently, before Minnesotans give another public dollar to another private company in the name of job creation (a flawed policy at best), we should invest in what we know works. We should at least match the Race to the Top grant and clearly commit ourselves to providing high-quality early childhood education for all our at-risk children. We must ensure that all children in Minnesota have the opportunity to succeed in school and be productive citizens.