Ready 4 K seeks funding increase to help prepare children for school

Promoting early learning, which begins virtually from birth, would prepare children for the rigors of school, say early childhood education proponents.

Promoting early learning, which begins virtually from birth, would prepare children for the rigors of school, say early childhood education proponents.

But to do so may take $300 million a year in a state budget that already is laden with requests that outweigh revenues.

Less than 50 percent of Minnesota's children come to kindergarten prepared to learn, Todd Otis, president of Ready 4 K, told the Pioneer's editorial board on Tuesday. His group's goal is to get that figure to 80 percent by 2012.

Currently, the state spends only 1 percent of its budget on early childhood programs, while 40 to 42 percent is spent on K-12 education, Otis said. Ready 4 K's goal is to double that, to 2 percent.

"We're advocating an agenda that hopes we can get to 2 percent, at least in the short term," Otis said. "That's $300 million, and we're not so na?ve that we're going to get it this year. But we think it's important for people at least to know that's the order of magnitude we would need to really do the job."


Proponents like to quote Art Rolnick, the Federal Reserve Board of Minneapolis analyst who reports that public investment in early childhood programs brings back a 12-fold return.

"The benefits have really been shown," Otis said. "The most important thing Art Rolnick has done is to show the public benefits in terms of higher education success, less crime, less public assistance, more productivity in the workforce.

"If we can get from 50 to 80 percent (school readiness), think what that means for K-12's effectiveness, for the workforce down the road," he added.

Otis is in Bemidji to attend the two-day 29th annual Early Childhood Mega Conference at Bemidji State University, which brings together people from Head Start and Early Childhood Family Education programs, nursery schools, public schools and centers as well as family child care facilities.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's biennium budget calls for about $40 million in new funding for early childhood programs, which Otis says is a step in the right direction but not far enough.

Pawlenty's biggest proposal is $28.8 million to create an early childhood scholarship fund to improve the school readiness of 4-year-olds at risk of being unprepared for kindergarten. It would provide up to $4,000 per child for children in households where income doesn't exceed 185 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

It's similar to a Senate DFL bill, Quality Early Learning Choices for Parents Act, but expands its use to 3-year-olds and to families with incomes up to 75 percent of the median income, about 286 percent of poverty or $59,000 for a family of four.

But Otis notes that the later is a hybrid model that emphasizes parent choice and also builds the capacity of existing programs such as Head Start, School Readiness and child care.


Ready 4 K is studying the Senate's "allowance" approach, but likes that the Senate would put $200 million into early childhood. The House, however, is closer to Pawlenty with $40 million to $50 million in new funding.

"The Senate is advocating an early childhood children's allowance, which would essentially be like a voucher or scholarship given to the family which could be redeemed at a quality child care or Head Start or other programs," Otis said. "It's an idea that is very controversial, particularly as the House has some real problems with it."

The House DFL would rather support existing infrastructure and existing programs with other reforms, he said. But the Senate bill has a lot of elements of choice that Otis' group supports.

"We tend to be more on the House side in terms of wanting to beef up the existing infrastructure, so we're working with the Senate to see how those children's allowances could be made to actually work," Otis said. "We would like to go to conference committee with the Senate's money and the House's policy."

Ready 4 K's legislative agenda includes a number of measures with the key goal of getting 80 percent of kids ready for kindergarten by 2012. Among them are:

E Restoring Early Childhood Family Education funding at $120 a child and creating a universal newborn visitation program to target families with most need, as well as increasing funding for early childhood screening.

E Target resources to parents with children from birth to age 5 who are at risk of not being prepared for kindergarten to access high-quality early care and education settings.

E Provide more linkages between early childhood programs and traditional K-12, such as a pilot PK-3 program to combine quality preschool, full-day kindergarten, curriculum alignment through third grade and parent involvement.


E Increased funding to expand the quality and range of professional development opportunities for early care and education providers, and providing a pilot project implementing a Quality Rating System for such providers.

E Encouraging partnerships and resource links between early childhood caregivers, public libraries, special education programs, Head Start, ECFE and child care, as well as parents.

E Restoring eligibility of low-income families to state child care subsidies at 75 percent of the state median income and for sliding fee assistance to all eligible families, as well as lifting a reimbursement rate freeze to child care programs and lowering required parent co-payments.

Legislators are already backing away from pre-session promises for all-day, every-day kindergarten and a "cover all kids" policy for health insurance because of limited financial resources. Many are afraid to raise taxes as an option, with Pawlenty's veto pen at the ready.

But Otis says that with early childhood programs forming a foundation which returns 12 times the investment in later public expenses, it may warrant raising taxes.

The Ready 4 K board voted Tuesday to support raising state taxes for that purpose, although the group isn't going to actively push it, Otis said.

"It's a priority issue," Otis said. "I wish a decision could be made ... based on the best return on investment, and then divvy up the pie. ... The board adopted a position of supporting revenues in the context of trying to accomplish our goals, with the argument that this is more an investment with a return."

Ready 4 K would support raising taxes as long as there is a return for the investment, not just funding for general fund purposes, he said.


"We'd like to stop playing catch-up and take advantage of those first three years of brain development, which are just amazing," said Lin Backstrom, early childhood development specialist for the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

"It's a shame for society not taking advantage of providing every opportunity for good, quality care and support for parents in those first three years," said Backstrom, who also spoke to the Pioneer's editorial board. "It's an investment we really should be making."

NMF is part of a statewide effort among Minnesota initiative foundations to build diverse community coalitions for early childhood programs.

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