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Sara Carlson, Barb Fabre and Patty Nordahl: A pre-k system needs both schools and child care in the mix

One-size-fits-all does not work well in Minnesota. Despite what some well-meaning state government leaders in the Twin Cities seem to believe, an approach that works in one part of Greater Minnesota won’t necessarily work well in all areas.

Take pre-k early education. There are areas of Greater Minnesota where a pre-k program based in a public school probably will work best for most parents. But there are also parts of the state where high quality child care providers probably work best for most parents.

That’s why the schools-only universal pre-k proposal being proposed at the State Capitol in St. Paul isn’t a great fit for Greater Minnesota. Under this proposal, all no-cost pre-k services for 4-year-olds must happen in schools. (On paper, a school district could choose to give away millions of dollars earmarked for schools, but that seems very unlikely to happen in most school districts.)

Here’s the problem with a schools-only approach. It’s just too rigid.

We’re not saying school-based programs are best for Greater Minnesota, and we’re not saying child care programs are best. We’re saying, “it depends,” on the individual area and the individual family.

The watchword for early education in Greater Minnesota must be “flexibility.” Parents need to be able to choose the high quality pre-k program in their area that best fits their circumstances and their child. These are the kinds of questions parents need to be able to ask:

• “Which location works best for our family?”

• “Which hours work best for our family’s work schedules?” (Note: School programs are usually open fewer hours than child care programs.)

• “Which teacher, teaching approach, or learning environment best fits my child’s unique needs?”

With a schools-only approach to universal pre-k, parents aren’t allowed to ask any of these questions, because the school is the only available option.

Scholarships, on the other hand, are flexible enough to fit the wonderfully varied communities, individual preferences and cultures that make up Greater Minnesota. Parents with scholarships can use them at a school-based program, when that’s what works best for them, or they can also choose a high quality early education program based in a home, center, non-profit organization or church, when that works best.

The only requirement is that scholarships have to be used at a high quality early education program using kindergarten-readiness best practices, as measured by the Parent Aware program. Already over 2,000 providers of all types and sizes have successfully adopted those best practices, and more are volunteering every day.

To serve all of this new demand for high quality early education, Greater Minnesota needs “all hands on deck” approach. With all of the other challenges school districts face, quickly finding the additional space, equipment, transportation, and trained personnel needed to serve thousands of new pre-k children will pose enormous fiscal and logistical challenges. Scholarships allow child care programs and school programs to combine forces to meet that new challenge together.

In fact, while we’re supporting scholarship expansion, we also should expand the School Readiness Program. That flexible program can help Greater Minnesota school districts better address such needs, and has been inadequately funded for meeting the unique needs of Greater Minnesota school districts.

So, to our well-intentioned friends in St. Paul designing a structure for early education, we have one request: Please keep the system as flexible as possible, because one-size-fits all does not work well in Greater Minnesota.

Sara Carlson is Executive Director of Willmar Area Community Foundation, Barb Fabre is Director White Earth Child Care/Early Childhood Programs, and PattyNordahl is a retired Cook County Early Childhood Teacher. All serve on the state’s Early Learning Council.

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