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Business says early learning a sweet spot

Date Published: 12/27/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President

ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT

The New Year is often represented as a happy, confident infant, and most of us want what’s best for all our babies. So even if you are not the parent of a baby or a toddler, you really ought to check out the “Parent Aware” website (www.parentawareratings.org).

There you will catch a glimpse of an emerging infrastructure for one of the most important and potentially lucrative investments we as citizens and taxpayers can be making, for the future of both our children and our business climate.

The site provides fairly detailed information, locator maps, and a ratings system for parents seeking providers of high-quality early childhood education – in other words, more than just babysitting or day care.

The fledgling Parent Aware system provides a model of public-private creativity and partnership. The ratings are issued by the Department of Human Services, but a key mover of the enterprise is the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), a nonprofit outfit funded by some of our state’s blue-chip corporations. Their ranks include such mega-employers as Cargill, Best Buy, General Mills, Ecolab, United Healthcare and the Minnesota Business Partnership. MELF has also built partnerships with other state government agencies and nonprofit leaders.

The MELF board is stacked with CEOs and top-level executives, hard-headed business folk who are also interested in the long-term economic health of their communities and their state. And they are persuaded by the mountains of evidence showing that top-quality early childhood education, especially for disadvantaged children likely to enter school already way behind their peers, can produce a $16 return on investment for every $1 spent. The return comes in the form of higher earnings for those kids in later life, greater productivity for the businesses that employ them, more tax revenues for communities, and reduced costs for everything from prisons to welfare programs.

Earlier this month, MELF released a set of legislative proposals conceived as a means of providing incentives to improve early childhood education and thus address the mounting problems arising from the fact that fully half of the 60,000 kids showing up in kindergarten every year arrive in various states of unreadiness.

Among the key MELF proposals:

• Expand the Parent Aware rating system from its current pilot-program status to statewide coverage. Although the tool is available now in Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Wayzata School District, and Nicollet and Blue Earth counties, the need for this vital information extends to the suburbs and may be particularly useful in rural counties.

• Introduce a variety of new incentives. These include: expansion of “Early Learning Scholarships” (up to $13,000 a year) for qualifying needy families who enroll their children in Parent Aware-rated quality programs; “Train and Retain” tax credits to promote better preparation of early childhood teachers and professionals; and “Early Learners’ Hero Tax Credits,” to encourage more private donations to improve quality and expand access.

• Establish a non-governmental “Promotions Board” to publicize and popularize the Parent Aware ratings system and to ensure that the standards remain evidence-based and focused on school readiness outcomes.

The executive director of MELF, former Republican Senate Minority Leader Duane Benson (who is also a former head of the Minnesota Business Partnership), wrote in an MPR commentary earlier this year that parents ought to have at least as good a consumer guide as do purchasers of coffeemakers and lawn mowers. State regulatory systems do exist to ensure that day care providers offer a safe and clean environment, said Benson, but the quality of learning and preparation for school need to be elevated as important factors.

The MELF board’s leadership also has a Democratic presence, and it includes Mike Ciresi, a key partner in the prominent national law firm Robins Kaplan Miller & Ciresi, based in Minneapolis. Ciresi noted in a statement with the legislative proposal that it represents a “reward model” rather than a “regulatory model…When we start rewarding Minnesota child care entrepreneurs for improving quality related to school readiness, many will seek those rewards.”

The roll-out of the proposal was accompanied by assurances that the program’s goals could be accomplished without an overall increase in state government appropriations. And of course, that’s a crucial plus for a new Legislature which is facing a projected $6.2 billion shortfall over the next two years.

MELF board members Peg Birk and Ted Staryk, in a MinnPost commentary, emphasized that the quality of early childhood education should be improved before major new government outlays. And MELF proposes that the costs associated with its scholarships and other proposals be drawn from an estimated $400 million already being spent in Minnesota to help parents of low-income children get access to child care.

But all the principals generally agree that eventually, as Ecolab CEO Doug Baker put it, “We may need to spend more.” The Birk-Staryk commentary concludes: “Ultimately, more investment in early education probably is necessary. But as the automobile commercial used to say, quality is job one.”

Our own research at Growth & Justice finds that Minnesota does need an increase in top-drawer, evidence-tested early childhood investments – beginning before birth with prenatal care and home-nurse visitations to promote responsible parenting. Drawing money from desperately needed child-care subsidy programs for working parents can only go so far; business leaders know from their own enterprises that on-the-cheap investments don’t produce the desired results. And there are early signs that the new leadership in the House and Senate will pay heed to the need.

“I’m very encouraged by the preliminary response from new Republican majority members,” says Todd Otis, executive director of Ready 4 K, a former Democratic legislator and DFL Party chairman, and a longtime early childhood advocate who helped found MELF.  Improving the lives of all our children – with a return on investment that CEOs would envy – is a promising piece of common ground between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and the new governor and the new Legislature as we begin a new year and a new decade.


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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, December 27, 2010.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.


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