Since 2008, early learning scholarships have allowed thousands of low-income children in Minnesota to access quality early education programs—whether in centers, schools, churches or homes—that are most likely to prepare them for kindergarten. Importantly, these scholarships are targeted to the low-income children who are most likely to arrive in kindergarten unprepared, and ultimately fall into the achievement gap.
Scholarships have been remarkably effective. A rigorous independent evaluation found that low-income kids who used scholarships to attend high-quality Parent Aware-rated programs made significant gains in kindergarten readiness measures, including vocabulary, phonics, print knowledge and social skills.
Because of the success of a 2008-2011 large scale scholarships pilot, Gov. Dayton and a bipartisan group of legislators have wisely championed scholarships from 2011 until now, with the backing of the 100-organization MinneMinds Coalition, Minnesota Business Partnership, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Obama Administration, which awarded $45 million to support this approach.
Despite this success and broad support, the Minnesota Commissioner of Education and many legislators have decided to propose no new funding for scholarships in 2015, and to instead spend billions of dollars into the future on a Universal Pre-K (UPK) plan.
This UPK proposal would provide free Pre-K education to four-year olds. MDE would subsidize non-low-income families with four-year olds, despite the fact that kids from wealthier families already tend to arrive in kindergarten prepared.
Under this MDE proposal, all money would flow to school districts to start school-based pre-K programs, instead of allowing parents to choose from a broader range of high-quality early education programs, as scholarships do. UPK also would be for four-year-olds only, while scholarships currently serve zero- to five-year-olds.
For an excellent analysis of why scholarships are a more flexible, effective and efficient investment strategy than UPK, I recommend this recent MinnPost commentary by Dr. Art Rolnick. In addition to the excellent points Dr. Rolnick makes, I’d like to address several other claims that are cropping up.
Claim: We need UPK to increase investments in public schools.
Response: False. Minnesota parents can—and do—use scholarships at school-based programs. So if scholarship funding increases, that additional investment would help school districts expand their early education programs. A scholarship expansion just wouldn’t earmark all of the new funds for schools.
Claim: Parents would prefer school-based programs to high-quality programs based in centers, churches or homes.
Response: While it is true that some parents choose to use scholarships at school-based programs, there are many very good reasons why a parent might prefer for their child to attend a high-quality program based in a center, home or church. A non-school option might be closer to home, a transit stop or a job. It might be especially connected to the family’s language and culture. It might offer longer hours that match a parent’s work schedule, rather than the much shorter days school-based programs tend to offer. A non-school option might use a teaching approach that is a good fit with their child. It might be more feasible to have both a four-year-old and younger siblings in one spot. Instead of imposing a one-size-fits all system on families, scholarships give parents flexibility to select a high-quality program that fits their child and lifestyle.
Claim: Early education is most important for four-year olds, not younger children.
Response: Up to 80 percent of brain development happens before age 3, so it is critically important to get low-income zero- to three-year-olds—as well as four-year-olds—in stimulating learning environments. Research shows that getting low-income infants and toddlers into high-quality environments has tremendous kindergarten-readiness benefits, as does offering evidence-based home visiting to their families. But the fiscal reality is this: When we spend so heavily to give wealthier families free pre-K for four-year olds, we simply run out of money to help the estimated 70,000 zero- to three-year olds whose low-income families cannot afford high-quality learning environments or other supports.
Claim: UPK vs. scholarships is not an “either/or” proposition. There is enough money for both.
Response: There is a reason why scholarships get no new funding in the MDE proposal. It’s because subsidizing a large group of non-low-income families of four-year olds is very expensive, so funding UPK leaves little-to-no new funding for scholarships for zero- to three-year-old low-income kids. If the expensive UPK program is funded for wealthier families, the reality is that no new funding will be available to help 70,000 low-income zero- to three-year-old children access high quality early education. Given that there is no ability or appetite at the Legislature to fully fund both UPK and scholarships, and the persistent and shameful achievement gap we face, Minnesota needs to put those low-income kids at the front of the line, not the back.
If we’re serious about narrowing the achievement gap, we must expand flexible, targeted scholarships for low-income children. If you agree, please meet with, call or write to your representative and senator in the Minnesota Legislature.
Ericca Maas is executive eirector of Parent Aware for School Readiness (PASR) and the mother of three young children. PASR is a business-oriented non-profit organization focused on improving kindergarten readiness. More information is available at www.pasrmn.org
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.