To close achievement gap, lawmakers want to catch kids young

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In its ongoing quest to narrow the achievement gap, the House Education Finance Committee heard testimony Tuesday on prekindergarten and other early childhood services for Minnesota’s youngest learners.

St. Paul public school officials described their district’s prekindergarten program, which serves about 1,100 4-year-olds this year, with another 740 children on a waiting list. Judy Halper, the CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Minneapolis, outlined the benefits of the Parent-Child Home Program, which uses intensive home visits to help parents prepare their children for school. Several representatives of MinneMinds, a statewide campaign to increase state funding for early education, also spoke of the need to invest early in the state’s youth.

An economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis said that investments in the education and skills of young children — particularly those who are at risk of doing poorly in school — yield a high public return. Rob Grunewald cited research indicating that the long-term benefits of such interventions can range from reduced costs associated with crime and special education to increased tax revenue. According to one study by Wilder Research, school readiness in Minnesota is worth $56,000 per low-income child, with most of the benefits going to taxpayers and society rather than the children and families themselves.

The meeting coincided with Gov. Mark Dayton’s unveiling of a budget proposal that includes new investments in early childhood education and optional all-day kindergarten.

“I think this is very encouraging,” Rep. Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth), the committee chairman, said of Tuesday’s testimony. “We have data-proven strategies and efforts that are making a difference.”

Closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, white and minority students is one of the committee’s top priorities. A central question that lawmakers will ask, Marquart said, is, “Where can we get the best value for every dollar that we spend?”

It’s a question that also concerns Republicans. Rep. Pam Myhra (R-Burnsville) pointed to a federal report on the Head Start program, which aims to improve the school readiness of poor children. That report, which compared children in Head Start to others in a mix of care settings, found what she called a “fade-out” effect: Many of the initial benefits of Head Start dissipate by the time participants enter first grade.

Myhra agrees that it’s important to help children succeed in school, but she said after the meeting that she worries about the focus of some early education programs. “My concern is that we’re pushing academics before children are ready for it.”