Pre-K targeted approach key to closing learning gap

Last year, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, forced the Legislature to approve some funds for voluntary pre-school for 4-year-olds. He would prefer to have universal pre-K for 4-year-olds.

In turn, 74 school districts around the state split $25 million for voluntary pre-K, but more than twice that many districts applied for the

Tom West, West Words

funds.

This year, Dayton wants $175 million to make the program universal for 4-year-olds.

The Republican-controlled Legislature isn’t having it, but not because they want fewer children ready for school when they reach kindergarten.

Instead, they want a blended approach, targeting early learning scholarships where they will do the most good, but making it possible for public schools to offer a program if there is no high-quality pre-K program available in a community. “One size fits all doesn’t really fit a targeted solution,” says Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. Kresha, who also served on the Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse, has been a chief proponent of the targeted scholarship approach.

As things stand, most 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten. The challenge is to bring the remainder up to speed.

These are the 40,000 children of the poor and disadvantaged. In the worst cases, mom may be on meth and dad may be nowhere to be found. In others, a single parent may be working two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. The GOP plan also gives priority to those children in foster homes.

The two-parent family, which has been held up as the ideal, was shattered 50 years ago, and some of these children are now in the third or fourth generation of poverty entrapment.

Only the most callous among us would say, “You’ve got to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.”

That only works in rare, isolated cases. Most of those children, trapped in poverty, never see a glimmer of hope. They get to school far behind their peers in cognitive development.

They struggle to learn, and many leave school long before graduation. They get involved in the drug trade, join gangs, and all too frequently end up as wards of the state, either in prison, or on some other program because they are unemployable.

Economist Art Rolnick, formerly of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, among others backed by a ton of research, notes that taxpayers gain a $16 return for every $1 spent on providing early education to low-income children.

Dayton’s program would fund pre-K learning for the children of Edina and Minnetonka millionaires along with every other Minnesota student.

But most everyone except the teachers’ unions thinks that targeting scholarships to the low-income kids is critical to helping them escape the vise of poverty.

After Eric Dean, the Starbuck 4-year-old, was murdered by his father’s fiance, despite repeated reports of suspected abuse to county social services two years ago, the Legislature responded by increasing annual funding for child protection services by $25 million.

In 2016, reports of suspected child abuse rose 25 percent, involving 39,500 children. Some of that was because of better reporting policies and less overworked social workers.

Regardless, the amount of ongoing child abuse is one more compelling reason that the state needs to target its attention and its dollars on these at-risk children.

Dayton’s plan is for part-day pre-K. The early learning scholarships in the Legislature’s plan would be used for all-day, all-year programs, making it easier for parents to hold a full-time job.

Another argument in favor of learning scholarships over universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, is that the programs can be applied to children younger than 4.

The Wilder Foundation, using funding from the non-profit Close Gaps by 5, surveyed low-income parents last year to ask what would benefit them most. Most important to them was full-day, full-year, multi-year services. Second was the ability of the program to prepare children for kindergarten.

The survey found 95 percent of those parents want a program that starts before age 4. Kresha said the key to the success of any pre-K program is parental involvement, and that letting them choose among high-quality, certified programs will keep parents engaged.

In the bill approved by the legislative conference committee earlier this week, Dayton’s $175 million for universal 4-year-old pre-K would be replaced by $112.9 million for public schools to spend on pre-K education and $138.7 million for early learning scholarships.

As a society, we don’t know what to do, if anything, about the rising trend of out-of-wedlock births or disintegrating family structure. We don’t know how to prevent chaotic home environments. We don’t know how to prevent domestic violence. We don’t know how to prevent drug abuse.

All we know is what scientific surveys show: that many lives are being ruined and potentially being lost because of the experiences that too many Minnesotans are going through in the first years of their existence.

We need to do more to help those children reach their potential. Funding high-quality, early-child scholarships targeted to low-income students is a key step in doing that.

 

Tom West is editor/general manager of the Record. Reach him at tom.west@mcrecord.com.