Studies show that the earlier children are exposed to reading and math, the better students they will become. And when parents are involved in their children’s education, students attain higher reading scores, start school ready for kindergarten and have a better quality of life as adults.
And yet state funding for one of Minnesota’s premier child development programs has been flat. The Early Childhood Family Education program has only now recovered from the state’s 2003 budget cuts.
Donald Sysyn, ECFE’s division manager at St. Paul Public Schools, said his budget dropped 20 percent in 2003, forcing site closures, teacher layoffs and hundreds of parents and children turned away from the program. And the cuts continued well past 2003.
“This is the first year since 2003 I didn’t have to cut staff,” Sysyn said.
The 30 licensed ECFE teachers in the St. Paul program know this history all too well.
“Gov. Ventura and Gov. Pawlenty don’t see this as a valuable program,” said Mary Ann Cogelow, a parent educator and lead teacher at the Dayton’s Bluff Elementary ECFE site. “They keep cutting and we keep losing quality.”
ECFE is a proven program. Founded in 1974 to teach parenting skills to low-income families, it now has reached more than 98 percent of Minnesota schools. Research shows ECFE typically boosts students a half-year ahead of their peers and reduces their use of special education services by 40 percent to 60 percent. ECFE graduates are more likely to finish high school. They have higher rates of postsecondary and college attendance. And by age 19, they rack up 40 percent fewer arrests than their peers.
Early childhood programs are financially beneficial as well. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis shows investment in early childhood programs yields an up-to-18-fold return to taxpayers over a child’s lifetime.
The key to ECFE’s success is parental involvement. “There are a lot of pre-K programs, but many ignore the parents,” said Deepa de Alwis, co-chair of the St. Paul All-City ECFE Parent Advisory Council. “Good parenting is becoming a rarer and rarer commodity. For a child to become a well-balanced adult, parents need to teach emotional intelligence and social balance and it has to be taught at a young age. Schools can’t teach empathy.”
While ECFE’s benefits can be measured with facts and figures, Cogelow sees the program’s success in other ways. Of Harding High School’s honors graduates last spring, “two-thirds of them were ECFE kids,” she said.
ECFE teaches parenting skills that can propel child to academic and career success, Cogelow said. “Look at the amount of money the government would have to spend to keep them in clothes,” she said. “Now they’re getting full-ride scholarships to the U”
Sysyn said the St. Paul program serves about 5,000 families at 15 sites. ECFE offers classes for English language learners as well as classes in Hmong and Spanish. The influx of Karin speakers from Myanmar has Sysyn looking for a Karin translator. “Karin speakers were just a trickle two years ago, but now we have three full classes,” he said.
That kind of commitment to St. Paul families was severely challenged by the state budget cuts. Funding that had been at $120 per eligible child dropped to $97 in 2003. Now the program is up to $120 per child again, “but, of course, it’s four years later,” Sysyn said.
ECFE is a proven program, increasing the odds that at-risk children will succeed in school and lift their families out of poverty. Stiff budget cuts might help the state’s short-term bottom line, but they leave thousands of families at greater risk of draining state coffers in the future.
Full funding for ECFE is an important investment for the Minnesota’s prosperity. But even more important, a robust ECFE is the right thing to do to help the neediest among us help themselves.