As Minnesotans congratulate ourselves on paying more attention to preschool, we need to face painful facts. We know a lot about what works to get children a fair start in school, and we are still far from providing or funding that fair start for poor children.
Many Minnesota kids still lack access to preschool. The Star Tribune reported a Head Start waiting list of 5,500 kids — that’s thousands of pre-schoolers from low-income families who can’t get in because Head Start is underfunded and doesn’t have room for them.
Minnesota funds Early Learning scholarships for other preschool programs, but not nearly enough for the kids who need them. In 2014, according to the same Strib article, the state funded about 5,700 early learning scholarships, leaving thousands of children on waiting lists.
Getting beyond public preschool
Half of the money for preschool “scholarships” went directly to public school pre-K programs and Head Start in 2014. That limits parent choice in important ways.
Pre-school is not the same as day care. A pre-school program may be a half-day at school. What if a parent’s work hours begin earlier than the school day or end later? Or both? A working parent may need a program that combines preschool and child care, rather than a half-day, or even full-school-day program that doesn’t cover their work hours.
This year, Governor Dayton proposes funding for public preschool programs, separate from scholarships, increasing parent choice.
The ratings game
Parent Aware rates preschool quality. Right now, scholarships can be used at any program that is going through the Parent Aware rating process, but as of next year, only three or four-star programs will be eligible for scholarship money.
According to a recent Hechinger Report article, Parent Aware fast tracks all public school programs and any nationally accredited private preschool programs. That gives them a pass on full compliance with best practices, such as low teacher-child ratios. “Measuring quality is tricky,” says the Hechinger Report, “and some question whether even all four-star programs are giving children the enrichment they need.”
Private daycare programs face higher hurdles to getting Parent Aware star ratings. Family daycare programs, good or not, face real challenges because of the ratings emphasis on teacher training and education. Without the fast-track advantage, “Only one in 10 non-accredited centers and fewer than one in 20 home daycares have applied, and most have received only one or two stars.” In 2016, families won’t be able to use scholarships at one and two star programs.
Beyond preschool to child care
Low-income families can’t afford child care. Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) offers subsidized child care to some, but more than 7,000 families are on a waiting list. Most child care also costs more than the amount that CCAP allows.
As Peggy Flanagan of the Children’s Defense Fund and Republican MN State Representative Mary Franson pointed out in a recent Strib op/ed:
“It is essential that we support hardworking families. Child care supports parents’ ability to go to work, and CCAP helps parents afford the care they need. It’s time to focus our attention on strengthening CCAP by making sure that families who need the vital assistance it provides can obtain it.”
Earlier than preschool
Studies show that even earlier interventions have a huge impact on children’s success in school. The Nurse Family Partnership works with the whole family, from prenatal visits through the child’s second birthday. From my earlier post, Changing lives, one mom at a time:
“The NFP mission is to “empower first-time mothers living in poverty to successfully change their lives and the lives of their children through evidence-based nurse home visiting.” Longitudinal studies conducted since 1977 show the program has a big impact on reducing child abuse and neglect, on school readiness and academic success for the children, and on maternal health and delaying subsequent pregnancies.”
More first-time moms need NFP, which currently serves about four percent of eligible families. And second-time moms also could benefit from a whole-family program like this.
We know how to help children learn and succeed in life. The Power of Preschool Done Right, a 2013 Hechinger Report article summed it up well:
“[E]very dollar invested in a high-quality early education program saves taxpayers at least $7 in social costs later. The long-term cost-savings from intervening are already declining before kindergarten, since the older a child is, the harder deficiencies are to repair. The biggest payoff comes from work with very young children because the more kids learn early, the less likely they are to fall behind and the better their school performance will be down the road.”
Governor Mark Dayton’s 2015 budget proposal significantly expands early education funding, from fully supporting all-day kindergarten in public schools across the state to $44 million to funding 10,000 preschool scholarships to Parent Aware-approved programs. That would be a big step forward — if the Republican legislature agrees to support a better future for the youngest Minnesotans.