Nancy Jost 2014By: Nancy Jost, Early Childhood Coordinator for West Central Initiative

Remember the last time you bought a car? I’m guessing you started by thinking about what is best for you and your family. Perhaps you thought about a large vehicle for hauling the soccer team to tournaments, or a small, efficient car for taking the family on road trips. After listing your priorities, maybe you searched for online reviews of vehicles that met your needs. You likely read consumer reviews and picked up an auto magazine.

Ideally, you find a good deal for a vehicle that fit your needs when the process is done. Shopping for early care and education programs for your children is remarkably similar.

But now imagine you didn’t have any consumer reviews, or hard data, to aid your decision. Would you feel lost? Confused? That’s what will happen to early care in Minnesota if elected officials don’t fully support Parent Aware this year.

Parent Aware is the tool Minnesota families use to find quality early care that fits their family’s needs. It is the statewide quality ratings system for early learning programs, bringing the same measuring stick of quality to all early learning programs including Head Start, center and home-based, public and private programs. Parent Aware promotes research-based best practices among participating programs through training and coaching, then rates them on a scale of one to four stars. Parents can access the ratings information to determine which early childhood program will be best for their child and family.

In car shopping terms, Parent Aware is the consumer report, ranking, and auto magazine all rolled into one. But in early care and education terms, Parent Aware is much more than that. Parent Aware also helps improve the quality of early care programs, by providing programs the classes, trainings, coaches, and materials they need to improve the quality of their programs.

Quality is important. In fact, it can even be said quality in early care and education programs is the most important factor. A program must be high quality, incorporating kindergarten readiness best practices, in order to make an impact on a child’s education. Conversely, if a program is low quality, it can actually be detrimental to a child’s learning and behavior, leaving a lasting impact into adulthood.

Quality is also crucial to closing Minnesota’s persistent opportunity and achievement gaps. High-quality early learning programs can change the trajectory of a child’s life, and Minnesota must be able to match the highest quality programs to the children who need it the most.

A recent evaluation found that Parent Aware is working. Minnesota children in public and private Parent Aware-rated programs based in centers, homes and schools are making significant gains on language and literacy skills, early math skills, persistence, social skills, and mental organization or “executive function” — all critically important to success in kindergarten and beyond.

Minnesota needs Parent Aware. But, the federal funding for Parent Aware sunsets this year. It is essential the state replace this funding to sustain, improve, and grow the ratings system. Not doing so is like setting up all Minnesota families to shop for a car without any quality ratings. Why would we want that for our most precious commodity, our children?

I urge all families, child care providers, and readers to contact your legislators, and tell them that we need them to support fully funding Parent Aware this year. It’s crucial for our state, families, and our children.