Proposed scholarship funding would get more kids in preschool

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Supporters of a bill that would fund preschool and child-care scholarships made their case on Thursday to members of the House Education Finance Committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley), HF1058 would funnel $183 million over the next two years to early learning scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families.

The bill is backed by MinneMinds, a coalition of nonprofit groups, foundations, and other advocates of child care and early learning. Its supporters also include Art Rolnick, former research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and author of a report on the impact of public investments in early childhood development.

“Providing access to high-quality early childhood education is the best economic investment that we can make,” he said. He cited research indicating that children who participate in such programs – particularly those from disadvantaged homes – are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to be arrested as adults, among other benefits.

Studies also show that much of the brain’s development occurs before age 5, making those years a critical time to ensure that a child is healthy and ready to learn, he said.

HF1058 would create an early learning scholarship program for families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Families could use the scholarships on a variety of programs, including child care centers, home daycares, school-based programs and Head Starts.

The bill is designed to encourage early learning programs to participate in a new quality rating and improvement system that the state has already started to roll out.

Some critics say the bill would create what amounts to a voucher system. Winkler responded that many preschools and daycares are private. “What these scholarships do is provide a financial incentive for these programs to increase their quality significantly in order to qualify.” That helps all the children who attend an early learning program, not just those receiving scholarships, he said.

“In my mind, this is taking a bit of public money in order to leverage up the quality and accountability of a largely private system that’s already in place.”

The bill’s critics include Sarah Gleason, a member of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church who spoke on behalf of ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition working for racial and economic equity in Minnesota. The group has a number of questions, she said. For example, “How will this ensure that kids aren’t plopped in front of a TV?” Even if a daycare program is rated, “Is a one-star rating enough?”

Many low-income parents are too busy making ends meet to do the research and legwork involved in finding the best preschool for their children, let alone apply for a scholarship, she said. “We’re afraid that the children who need it most will be most likely to get the least access in a scholarship or voucher-based program.”

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, also raised concerns at the hearing. He disputes the claim that early childhood education has long-term benefits. For example, one federal review of Head Start showed that, while participating children outperformed a control group on a range of emotional and cognitive measures, many of their initial gains faded over time. He also questioned whether the quality rating system for early learning programs will improve outcomes for children.

The bill would give the scholarship program $78 million in fiscal year 2014 and $105 million in fiscal year 2015. It would also set a base appropriation of $150 million for the program in fiscal year 2016.

At that level of funding, the scholarships would expand access to early learning services to the tune of about 20,000 children, MinneMinds estimates. That works out to about $7,400 per child, Winkler said, though the amount of individual scholarships would vary.

The committee laid over the bill for possible inclusion in the omnibus K-12 education finance bill.

HF1058 has a Senate companion sponsored by Sen. Chuck Wiger (DFL-Maplewood). SF481 has been referred to the E-12 Division of the Senate Finance Committee.