It’s time for real public preschool access

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The Star Tribune recently reported that there is a new push among the public, school district officials, and government leaders for improving pre-Kindergarten school-readiness programs. The push is bipartisan; there is a growing consensus that pre-K programs represent one of the best means of challenging the achievement gap in K-12 education. Enrollment improves learning capacity and accelerates childhood development.

Despite this consensus, Minnesota lags behind other states in terms of access; 72,000 Minnesotan children remain unserved. The gap between enthusiasm and enrollment illustrates the shortcomings of Minnesota’s current policy centered on private preschool. Increasing public preschool opportunities would help all learners and yield a positive return on investment.

Private childcare dominates in Minnesota. Just one percent of the state’s population of three and four year olds attend public preschool, compared to a 16 percent national average. Minnesota ranks 6th in state spending on early education programs but ranks 40th in access for four-year olds.

Most spending comes in the form of subsidies for private pre-K programs. The Star Tribune article suggests that current funding is inadequate. Full time child care in Minnesota costs over $13,000 a year for infants – or 52 percent of the average single parent’s monthly income. The state offered $44 million in scholarships in 2013 and 2014, affecting only around 10 percent of the eligible population.

Another problem is that demand exceeds supply. The number of people that want or need a pre-K program is higher than the amount available, even though private options grew after the recession.

The growing range of private providers also raises concerns about quality of care. The Minnesota Department of Human Services does run the Parent Aware quality rating service, but there are questions about the accuracy and fairness of these rankings. Notably, nearly all programs receive high rankings, except those in communities of color; Hmong providers rarely get above two stars.

Our state’s current pre-K policy leaves many young learners behind. Scholarships have helped some students, but they remain inadequate. We need more public preschool options, similar to Washington D.C.’s model of universal pre-K education. Public programs will help close K-12 opportunity gap. It is time for Minnesota to be a leader in early education; our current public policy is not helping us achieve that.