By Vernae Hasbargen, MREA Legislative Consultant
The legislature successfully increased funding for the state’s poorest four year old children last session by giving their parents a $5,000 scholarship for a high-quality preschool program. If their parent is a teenager, then a child is eligible from birth.
It was a long time coming and required a significant change in Minnesota’s political leadership. The slowness of embracing early learning frustrated many who saw it as the single most important strategy to close the achievement gap and a good investment for the state, after Art Rolnick, former head of our Federal Reserve District, found a $16 return for every $1 invested.
How money is distributed
Initially the Governor proposed only individual scholarships but organizations like MREA successfully lobbied for a two-pronged approach. Phase I sends scholarships directly to parents. Phase II gives startup funds to school districts or Head Start programs who are the primary providers of preschool for rural parents. See Phase II map of eligible school districts.
According to Commissioner Cassellius, the primary goal is to distribute the scholarships across the state in a fair and balanced way. Using both approaches splits the $40 million almost evenly between metro and rural Minnesota.
Scholarships to poorest areas only
The state identified the three poorest counties in each of the 13 economic development regions in order to concentrate the scholarships and generate the greatest cultural shift toward quality child care programs. The Phase I List shows which counties qualify for the scholarships and contact information for the agencies that are awarding the scholarships within each economic development region.
In regional meetings, MREA members raised concerns about this approach, wanting to move to eligibility-based funding like Title I instead. The MREA platform urges the state to ensure stable funding in the future so that students aren’t winners or losers on an annual basis.
Legislators were split on how large each scholarship should be but MDE succeeded in setting the amount at $5,000 in order to fund as many children as possible.
Maureen Rosato of the Itasca County Community Action Agency, believes $5,000 is too low to provide a high quality full-time slot, but the $5,000 does expand existing programs and/or provide summer enrichment.
“Too early to tell”
When MREA asked Nancy Jost, the Early Childhood Coordinator at West Central Initiative in Fergus Falls, how well she thought the scholarships were working, she replied “It is too early to tell.” Jost is a key player in the MinneMinds Coalition which successfully spearheaded the scholarship effort. She believes the state will significantly increase its investment if its fiscal picture continues to improve.
Another key player is Mary Kosak of the Blandin Foundation, who has seen Itasca County’s Invest Early program become a statewide model after Blandin initiated funding a decade ago. Even though Invest Early also qualified for federal Race to the Top scholarships, still only 191 children have access to this early learning program, while 262 remain on a waiting list.
Kosak summed it up this way, “It was wonderful that the legislature approved the additional $40 million for scholarships, but it is only a drop in the bucket as far as the need.”
It is estimated the $40 million covers only 9% of the eligible children and $5,000 isn’t enough for a quality preschool program anywhere in the state, especially the metro area.
So watch for a fine-tuning of this policy and the Governor proposing more investment if the November forecast shows the state has additional revenue. This “bucket” is a long way from full.