The Senate E-12 committee last week reviewed an evaluation report from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) on early childhood scholarships in terms of their efficiency, funding distribution and impact on readiness and student growth. View the full report.
After many years of piloting the program, the legislature created the Early Learning Scholarships Program in 2013 (MS 124D.165). The scholarships aim to increase access to high-quality early childhood education programs for children ages 3-5. Scholarships are provided to families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level for use at quality programs determined through the Parent Aware rating system.
The current scholarship appropriation of $104 million over the current fiscal biennium supports 5,700 children each year or 11 percent of eligible three and four-year-old children. Scholarship distribution across all counties was slow in the first two years of existence, but they’re now available in all Minnesota counties.
Scholarship funding per family has also increased from a cap of $5,000/child to $7,500/child and can be used in coordination with other early childhood funding, including Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP).
There are two pathways for allocating scholarships. Pathway I funds are awarded directly to families to shop for early childhood services. Pathway II funds are distributed to eligible early childhood providers, including Head Start, school districts, child care centers and family child care, through a competitive application process.
The evaluation report noted that while a $7,500 scholarship cap doesn’t cover the cost of full-day, full-week programming in every setting, that when layered with other funding sources it is adequate to serve low-income children. The report also noted that the mean scholarship expenditure in 2015 was $2,439 and that only 1 in 8 scholarships were used at the maximum award. The report recommends maintaining the current cap of $7,500.
In terms of the efficiency in funding approaches between the two Pathways, the report noted that while Pathway I and Pathway II receive an equal share of the state appropriation. Pathway II served 59 percent of the children in the program while Pathway I served 41 percent of them.
The report details needed improvements to the efficiency and effectiveness of administration of all scholarships. Some of these changes may require legislative action that MDE will seek in 2016.
In terms of student growth and kindergarten readiness, the report found that there was no difference in growth measures between Pathway I and II children. Instead, the differences in growth were found between those children attending 3&4 star programs compared to 1&2 star programs.
Children in 3&4 star programs showed growth in 6 of 9 categories of measurement from Fall to Spring, all academic. Children in 1 & 2 star programs showed growth in 3 of 9 categories Fall to Spring, all academic. Neither cohort showed growth in attention-persistence, anxiety, or anger-depression.
The report noted that the mean pretest scores for Pathway I children in the study were higher than Pathway II.
Pathway II funds were more likely to be awarded to children from non-English speaking homes than Pathway I. Overall, scholarships are serving a higher percentage of children of color/and or Hispanic compared to the same age children statewide. A majority of Hispanic children are in programs using Pathway II funds.
Senators on the committee debated the purpose of splitting scholarship funding between Pathway I and Pathway II, but they failed to acknowledge the facts of this report during their discussion. We expect to see legislation this session bringing and end to the Pathway II program. It’s not likely to succeed, but there are loud voices of opposition to Pathway II and strong advocates for a Pathway I only approach.
There was also some discussion of the need to provide resources to children ages 0-2 and to provide targeted home visiting services for at-risk families with young children. Governor Dayton is expected to release an early childhood education initiative as the 2016 gets underway.