More money for preschool scholarships will only go so far

Lining up
Preschool and kindergarten-age students line up at Cornerstone Montessori School in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, June 18, 2015. Governor Mark Dayton and the legislature passed an education bill that provides $100 million in funding for early learning programs, including scholarships for Cornerstone Montessori families.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

A state program that helps low income families send their children to high quality preschools got a big boost in last week's special legislative session when lawmakers doubled the funding for early education scholarships.

But providing more money for the scholarships won't necessarily double the number of students who benefit. That's because state officials are considering increasing the amount of each scholarship to cover more of the typical cost of preschool.

The scholarships help send children to preschool programs like the one offered by Cornerstone Montessori School on St. Paul's east side, where on Thursday, 5-year-old Finnegan Anastos McGuire worked on math. His problem: 8,642 divided by 2.

Finnegan is one of 55 children in the preschool program at Cornerstone, where students range in age from 18 months to age 5.

The program aims to prepare students for kindergarten, teacher Sara Papacek said. But it also helps children learn to enjoy the classroom at an early age.

"They love learning," she said. "They love building their knowledge."

Counting beads
A student counted beads at Cornerstone Montessori School.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Minnesota has been working for decades to place more young students into such programs. The debate over funding them turned contentious this spring.

Gov. Mark Dayton wanted money to fund universal preschool for all of the state's 4-year-olds, regardless of their parents' income. State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, backed that effort. When state lawmakers passed an education bill in the regular session that didn't include universal pre-K, the governor vetoed the measure.

During the special session, Dayton agreed to drop the initiative in favor of a compromise with Republican leaders in the House to double the state's early learning scholarships.

Low-income families receive $5,000 a year in preschool scholarships. They can be used to pay for private, home- or school-based programs, as long as they earn a three- or four-star rating from Minnesota's Parent Aware program.

Across the state, 5,000 families now receive such scholarships. Now that the funding has doubled, the young math students at Cornerstone Montessori might calculate that 10,000 families might benefit in the next round. But public policy math isn't that simple.

That's because the state Department of Education is considering whether to increase the amount each family can receive so that the amount is closer to the full cost of preschool, more than $12,000 a year.

Reading together
Arianna Atemkeng, right, read to fellow student Noelle Bouwens at Cornerstone Montessori School.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

The increase makes sense to Frank Forsberg, chair of the executive committee of MinneMinds, an early learning advocacy group.

"Now that we're adding some funds to the pool, it's probably a good idea to expand that cap," he said.

Forsberg wants the scholarship cap set at $8,000. That would allow families to pick higher quality preschools, he said.

It also would also help preschools that have been supplementing the state scholarships with their own scholarship dollars.

Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, would like to see the scholarship set at $10,000.

"I know people worry if you increase the cap that means fewer children can go," said Rolnick, a longtime advocate of early childhood education in Minnesota. "That's right, there's a trade-off there. But better to have these children go to high-quality [preschools] and create a sustainable model rather than shortchange the children, shortchange the program."

Rolnick is confident the scholarship model could close the gap in kindergarten readiness between white students and students of color — and help narrow the gap in standardized test scores between students of color and white students in later grades.

Sharing a hug
Teacher Adriana Torres comforted Maleah Lightfoot, 4, during class at Cornerstone Montessori School.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Whether to increase the early education scholarship cap and by how much is up to Cassellius, the state education commissioner. She hopes to make a decision within a few weeks, and also pledges to continue pushing for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds.

"We want to be sure that we help our young families out and make it more affordable for them to be able to send their children to high quality childcare and preschools so they're all ready for school when they come to kindergarten," Cassellius said.

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