BarbaraYates-HeadshotBy: Barbara Yates, President and CEO of Think Small

We’ve heard it before.

If everything is your priority, then nothing is your priority.

Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.

But, it’s true. Budgets are important. It’s how we know if elected officials are putting their money where their mouth is. It’s how we know what will get done, and what won’t.

This legislative session is another enormous opportunity to get things done for early learning in Minnesota, especially for children who need help the most. This, in a very general way, means children from low income families and children of color, which sadly happen to coincide in Minnesota.

Minnesota has a $900 million surplus. We have a governor and legislative leaders who voice support for providing quality early learning programs across our state. And now, we have Governor Dayton’s supplemental budget for how to spend the surplus on different components of Minnesota’s early learning landscape, showing his values.

Governor Dayton included crucial funding for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) in his supplemental budget. The Child Care Assistance Program is an essential pillar of early childhood assistance for thousands of Minnesota families and a crucial tool for reducing the cycle of poverty. It provides financial assistance to families who meet income eligibility requirements and participate in work or school. His funding proposal helps Minnesota comply with recent federal changes to this important program that help improve the quality of care for children from low-income families. Dayton’s plan also increases the rate of reimbursement to child care providers participating in CCAP, helping better align the cost of their services. It’s a win-win, and it’s fabulous to have the governor’s support.

The governor’s supplemental budget also includes $125 million over the next three years for public school preschool programs in areas lacking quality early learning options. Many of the details of this proposal are not yet known, but it doesn’t seem very likely to cover all day, full day care. We know year round, quality early learning programs make a difference in a child’s life, particularly a child experiencing the opportunity gap, and limited exposure often does not make a substantial difference in kindergarten readiness levels. 

Conversely, this line item could be much better spent. $125 million could fund enough early learning scholarships to send 17,800 children from low-income families to all day, year round quality care, providing the exposure to quality care needed to take a bite out of opportunity gaps.

Early Learning Scholarships are a much better bang for our collective buck. It’s the smartest, most efficient and fastest solution to improve and expand Minnesota’s early learning landscape. The choice is similar to spending your entire weekly grocery budget on junk food or on fruits and vegetables. You can spend your budget on junk food. You will have food to eat for the week, but it’s not good for you. It won’t fulfill your nutritional needs. It’s still food, but it won’t help you in the present and it won’t set you up for a healthy future. You could spend the same amount of money on healthy fruits and vegetables, which will squash your hunger and provide the nutrients needed to succeed. All for the same price. It’s a choice.

Perhaps most telling in Governor Dayton’s supplemental budget is what it’s missing. His proposal includes no mention of Parent Aware. This is extremely problematic for a number of reasons.

The key component to making all early learning programs have an impact on children’s lives is quality. A program must be quality, meaning incorporate 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 adolescence. 

In Minnesota, we measure the quality of early childhood programs through Parent Aware. Parent Aware is our statewide quality rating system that compares all different types of programs- family child care, child care centers, Head Start and public school programs- along the same measuring stick, so families can decide which program is the best fit for their child.

A recent evaluation solidified the importance of Parent Aware, showing that children in Parent Aware rated programs are getting ready for kindergarten. 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.

But, because the initial funding for Parent Aware sunsets this year, it is essential the state replace funding to sustain, improve, and grow the ratings system. Without Parent Aware, investments in early learning cannot be successful. Quality must be a part of the structure. It’s the key to success and improvement.

Governor Dayton’s supplemental budget has a lot of great components for early learning. But it’s missing the crucial pieces. Parent Aware and Early Learning Scholarships. These two programs are the backbone of early learning in Minnesota. Without them, most other investments will not do what we want them to accomplish. Without them, our dollars will be wasted.

We all agree early learning is a wise investment. But Minnesota must now decide how best to make the investment. Early Learning Scholarships and Parent Aware ratings for quality programs are the wisest choices we can make.

Children and families are counting on our elected officials to continue supporting these programs.