The Policies in Play series takes a closer look at the recently passed state legislative policies that affect early care and education. We work with partners to find out what these policies look like in action and how they impact Minnesota children and families.

For over 40 years, Families First of Minnesota (formally Child Care Resource and Referral) has been a non-profit organization in our community working as a resource for parents, child care programs, and community members in all areas of early childhood.  Our programs reach families in 20 southern counties across the state, as well as greater Minnesota in the case of Early Learning Scholarships.

We help ensure positive beginnings for all young children and their families by offering the following programs in the Rochester area and beyond:

  • Child Care Aware (20 counties)
  • Crisis Nursery (Olmsted County)
  • Early Head Start (Olmsted, Freeborn, also with Semcac and Three River partnerships in Rice and Winona)
  • Early Learning Scholarships (28 counties)
  • Head Start (Olmsted, Freeborn)
  • School Readiness (Rochester)

Families First’s role in Early Learning Scholarships is that of Area Administrator in which we administer services that meet the grant requirements under an obligation to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). This current fiscal year we are working with an awarded amount of $7.3 million.  This means we award and manage scholarships to qualifying families in 4 Regional Areas making up 28 Minnesota counties, with 2 of these areas being newly added this fiscal period: Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Mower, Olmsted, Rice, Steele, Wabasha, Winona, Blue Earth, Brown, Faribault, Le Sueur, Martin, Nicollet, Sibley, Waseca, Watonwan, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Mille Lacs, Pine, Carver, Dakota and Scott. Currently, we are serving almost 1000 children in these areas.

Early Learning Scholarships increase access to high-quality early childhood programs for 3- and 4-year old children with the highest needs in order to increase their school readiness.  The scholarships can be used at Parent Aware rated programs ranging from Head Start to licensed family child care. Actual spending amounts vary depending on the child, program, location and whether the child receives other funding such as Child Care Assistance.

This year, because of changes during the 2017 legislative session, younger siblings and children birth to 5 may also qualify based on certain criteria such as homelessness, teen parents pursuing an education, or children in the foster care or child protection system.  Scholarships are awarded to families of these eligible children for up to $7,500 for use at any Parent Aware participating program.

Expanding eligibility to all Parent Aware rated programs this year and adding access for some younger children has only continued a waitlist in all four regional areas administered by Families First of Minnesota. The last state reported number, July 2017, for waitlisted children was over 300 for the areas we administer. The children that meet MDE criteria for priority are accounted for in our distribution plan created to meet grant requirements of the scholarship funds.

To maximize the use of our allocated funds, administrators work with the awarded family and program as well as looking at historical data to find the awards that won’t be fully spent.  Thus, some children are awarded a lesser award amount based on these factors.

This is when the science behind awarding moves to an art form.  Administrators take the unspent and unobligated funds from these scholarships and award additional scholarships to children who are on our waitlist. That artful investing of the State’s funds results in more young children getting the care and early education they need to be successful in school.

For example, a child that attends a Parent Aware rated preschool program only 2 days per week and doesn’t need additional care coverage will only use about $200 per month. Thus their usage is only around $2,400 for the 12 months of the award; we would then be able to allocate additional dollars from the budget to another child’s award.

Despite all administrators seeking to judiciously spend the allocated funds, wait lists remain. In the coming months, administrators will work diligently to take unspent funds and provide another child the benefit of a scholarship.

This year MDE has also provided new flexibility for the administrators in regard to the grant amount awarded to each area.  The unobligated funds initially distributed to the operating areas are available to be moved to other areas with a greater need.  This shifting of dollars will happen halfway thru the fiscal year when a true representation of funding is found.

The Early Learning Scholarship Administrators in our State do their best to ensure as many children as possible benefit from the funding MDE provides.

By Jon Losness and Sara Stebbins

Jon Losness


Jon Losness is Executive Director of Families First.



Sara Stebbins is Coordinator of Early Learning Scholarships.