Parent engagement and early learning scholarships or universal public preschool?


Minnesota has made some progress since the U.S. Department of Education published data in 2012, which ranked our state as the worst and near-worst in the achievement gap and HS graduation rates of disadvantaged children. The 2014 performance of these Minnesota students has improved and the achievement gap has been reduced. But we still have a long way to go to ensure equal opportunity for all children.

One initiative that is likely to make a difference is the Early Learning Scholarship program, for which the Legislature appropriated $46 million dollars for 2013 and 2014, $4.6m for 2015 and $9.7m for 2016-17. The scholarships help thousands of children reap the benefits of high-quality preschool. Still, at current funding levels, the scholarships will reach only about 10% of eligible 3 and 4-year old children in Minnesota, and often not those at greatest need. The challenge is not only that of raising funds to cover the 90% of eligible children not currently served; it is an even greater priority to ensure that the families and children most in need be targeted effectively.

If disadvantaged children enter kindergarten inadequately prepared to learn, they will fall further behind over time. Many of them will become discouraged and, too often, drop out. The costs to society of youth not graduating from high school are very high.

On the upside, the investment in preschool and early learning, according to University of Minnesota economist Art Rolnick, will produce at least a 7 to 1 return on investment. World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen, in his 2/4/14 article The jury is in—and study after study backs early childhood education wrote: “In 2010, Rutgers researchers undertook the Herculean task of reading and analyzing the previous 50 years of early childhood education research. The review, which summarized 120 separate studies, found that children enrolled in pre-K programs do better in school than their peers.”

Families can be marginalized because of social or economic status as well as cultural and language barriers. If a family does not have sufficient knowledge or language resources to apply and/or qualify for the opportunities offered, the opportunities could just as well not exist. In the interest of equity, which translates into overall excellence, the state needs to ensure that the most disadvantaged connect to available programs and that programs are effective in engaging parents as active partners in their children’s learning. Fortunately, the Department of Education has developed a distribution plan based on poverty indicators. The effective implementation of this plan, which will need to overcome language and cultural barriers, is a key priority for the near future. Critical to the success of the plan will be an effort to reach and build trust with families long before their children reach the age of eligibility for the early learning scholarships. Home visiting programs for new parents, many of which are overseen by the Minnesota Department of Health, and school district programs like ECFE (for parents of children birth to 5), can be important partners in helping families with the highest need access scholarships. Those programs

also can have a significant impact on the quality of parent-child relationships in the earliest months of life, another major contributor to children’s success in school and in life.

Minnesotans owe thanks for the encouraging trends in early learning to the collaborative work of legislators in both parties, Governor Dayton, the Departments of Education and Health, MinneMinds, a committed coalition of 100 statewide organizations, which represent the education community, philanthropic organizations, nonprofits, businesses and the ethnic State Councils.

Governor Dayton’s budget proposes funding for public preschool 4-year olds. There has been controversy on whether this universal approach is in conflict with the Scholarship program. This apparent conflict surfaces because of the sadly common either… or mindset, which has led to impasse and gridlock in the Legislature and Congress. It is imperative that we return to the mindset of both… and, which is truer to democracy. According to author Jim Collins, this mindset transformed companies from good to great. Should we not look for similar results in early education? The priority should obviously be the Early Learning Scholarship because it targets disadvantaged families and children, whose need is urgent. The universal strategy is worthy and aspirational but longer term.

For detailed information, contact Lisa Barnidge, MDE, at or 651-582-8849 and Drew Henry, MinneMinds, at 952-851-7226 or

Hector Garcia is Executive Director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council of Minnesota.

Marti Erickson, Ph.D., retired from the University of Minnesota, is an independent consultant and co-host of the weekly parenting show Mom Enough® (