Column: $40 million that may or may not make a difference

 Nathan

Nathan

Pounding basketballs and children sitting on sofas come to mind as I think about the $40 million that Minnesota has just made available to families for early childhood program scholarships. While the money may be used well, I think it’s too early to describe this as a “major step forward,” as one advocate asserts.

Give advocates, the governor and Minnesota Legislature credit for recognizing considerable research about the value of high-quality early childhood programs for students from low-income families. This money could help about 8,000 youngsters, as there is a cap of $5,000 per scholarship. Parents throughout the state with low and modest incomes can learn more about how to apply at http://bit.ly/19Qj6u4.

But all early childhood programs are not equally effective. Some accomplish far less than others.

Those pounding basketballs are what I heard years ago when visiting an early childhood program that some people had suggested for our children. It was in the basement of a private school. When my wife and I entered, we heard constant pounding coming from the ceiling.

Teachers explained that the early childhood program was under the school’s gym. We were hearing older children dribbling basketballs. They told us this went on all day.  We did not enroll our children in this program.

Then there was the sofa we heard about at another early childhood program.  For several hours a day, the program “parked” youngsters on the sofa, in front of a TV. This was not what we (or authorities in the field) saw as a high-quality early childhood program.

Compare that to one of the state’s strongest early childhood programs – at the Dodge Nature Center Preschool in West St. Paul. No TVs. Youngsters sing, dance and explore woods, ponds and animals. They paint. They listen to and sometimes help create books.

These stories come to mind with the recent Minnesota Department of Education announcement about the $40 million for program scholarships.

Barbara Yates, president and CEO of “Thinking Small,” a statewide early childhood advocacy group, wrote via email: “Not only are these scholarships great for kids, but they provide an important opportunity for families, too. Pilots have shown that the stability early childhood scholarships provide to families help them better maintain consistent employment, housing and education. Helping the child helps the whole family.”

This could work out as Yates hopes. However:

–There’s no guarantee that parents can get their children into the strongest programs – those earning three or four stars in the “Parent Aware” program.  Some of the best programs have waiting lists.

–Yates acknowledges that the $5,000 may not cover the full cost of the full-time, strongest programs. According to Yates, some charge more than $10,000 per year for a full-day program.

–As Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius points out in MDE’s press release announcing the funds, “These funds only meet approximately 9 percent of the need throughout Minnesota.”

MDE quotes Art Rolnick, of the Humphrey School. He said these funds are “a major step forward to ending inter-generational poverty and ensuring the future success of Minnesota’s economy.”

How many families will be able to enroll their youngsters in the best programs? How many will choose the finest programs if they have to pay up to half the cost? We don’t know. Should some funds be used to help expand or replicate the state’s strongest programs? Perhaps.

Is it too early to call this a “major step forward”? Seems to me we need to study how many of the 8,000 youngsters are able to get into the best programs before we know.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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