Last year, Minnesota blew it. We lost out on federal dollars through the Department of Education's Race to the Top grant program that would have injected $330 million into our classrooms. Those funds would have helped Minnesota increase student achievement across the board, increase high school graduation rates and increase college enrollment and completion.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen. We failed to so much as submit an application.
But now we have a second chance at Race to the Top dollars. At a time when our state's fiscal landscape is barren, the federal government is making more competitive funds available to states focusing on quality early childhood education. This is our moment to seize upon. We can win this.
A competitive application would demonstrate things that most Minnesotans already agree on: increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged preschool-aged children enrolled in high-quality early learning programs; design and implement a system of high-quality early learning programs and services; and ensure that any use of assessments conforms with the recommendations of the National Research Council's reports on early childhood. Minnesota has already begun this work. Now, it's time to ramp it up for all of the right reasons – because it's good for kids and good for our state's bottom line,
Fifty years of research proves that children who have the chance to enroll in high-quality preschool programs fare better in school and in life. Yet, despite decades of proof, our children still have little access to high-quality preschools, and parents have few ways to identify the best preschool options available to them. Among all states that offer some type of pre-K program, Minnesota ranks dead last in providing access to quality pre-K. In 2008–09, fewer than 2 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in a state-funded early education program, compared with nearly 15 percent nationally.
Minnesota's special quality of life and our economic vitality depend on our ability to produce highly educated citizens. Very few reforms will be successful if we don't intentionally front load our investments and ensure that we seal off any leaks in the educational pipeline. We need to ensure that the youngest Minnesotans have the early learning opportunities they deserve, and that means providing their parents with tools to make the right choices for their children from pre-K on.
This year, we have enjoyed broad bipartisan support for quality pre-K, and policy makers on both sides of the aisle agree that quality early childhood education is the right first step toward closing the achievement gap. Three-quarters of Minnesotans agree that the Legislature should make improving Minnesota's ability to prepare children for school one of its top priorities, and 88 percent say this is an issue that demands bipartisan cooperation.
That consensus, however, wasn't realized during this year's regular legislative session. When the early childhood quality rating system was stripped out of the education finance omnibus bill, more than 1,300 people made their voices heard and told the Legislature that they'd be watching, and that they expected their elected officials to right that wrong if and when the opportunity presented itself.
Now is that time. It's the right time to do this for our youngest Minnesotans, and it's the right time to do this for our state's economic future. Let's pass quality pre-K legislation during the 2011 special session and make sure we don't blow this Race to the Top opportunity.
Vallay Varro is the executive director of MinnCAN: the Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now, and Art Rolnick is a senior fellow, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.