MN group continues drive to support young learners

MARSHALL – The state of Minnesota traditionally has had one of the nation’s top educational systems. But when it comes to early learning, more can be done.

The $4.6 million increase in funding for pre-kindergarten scholarships included in the Minnesota Legislature’s 2014 supplemental budget shows a group called MinneMinds that legislators acknowledge the importance of a scholarship model championed by the coalition. But with the 2014 elections coming up quickly and soon after the 2015 legislative session, early childhood education should remain a prominent issue, MinneMinds says.

The group is bolstered by Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for a commitment that by 2018 all 3- and 4-year olds in Minnesota will have access to quality, affordable early childhood education.

“Governor Dayton has said that by 2018, 70 percent of all living wage jobs are going to require some post secondary education, but a fourth of our workforce doesn’t even graduate form high school,” said Nancy Jost, early childhood coordinator at the West Central Initiative, a member of the Start Early Funders Coalition and a coalition member of MinneMinds. “That’s not a high school problem, it’s a societal problem. It’s an early childhood problem. We’re trying to get the rest of the world to see how important early childhood is and what a huge part it plays in our society.”

Started in 2012, MinneMinds is a research-grounded consortium of organizations and leaders from across the state with a common commitment to prioritize the state’s youngest in-need children as the most important investment the state can make. Jost calls it a “sister group” to the Southwest Initiative Foundation.

Jodi Maertens of SWIF said Region 8, which includes Lyon County, has received $729,344 in scholarship monies to date. That has helped Lyon County roll out the Parent Aware Quality Rating System in which child care providers are rated and go through the different qualifications they need to become rated by the state.

The four-star system awards anywhere from $3,000-$5,000 per year to qualifying child care providers so they can offer children a quality educational experience before they enter kindergarten.

More information on the program is available at parentaware.org

Jost said she has been involved in early childhood education for 40 years. Until groups outside of the early childhood circle got involved, she said MinneMinds had trouble getting traction since its inception. Today, however, the organization consists of more than 80 members from across the state.

“We’re trying to get people to realize how important this is to our state, to our communities,” said Jost.

Jost said the goal is to make sure money is made available to all 3- and 4-year-old kids living at or below 185 percent of poverty so they can have access to high quality, early-learning options, and they want to do it through scholarships. MinneMinds already has $27.65 million annually invested in early learning scholarships – which provides enough funding for about 15 percent of eligible kids, Jost said – and is looking to reach the $150 million mark. It will be up to the Legislature, she said, to help MinneMinds fulfill its goal.

“This is an issue that has bipartisan support,” said Jost. “And there has just been a national survey done that shows the majority of people in the U.S. think we should be spending more money on early education.”

Jost said because so many kids don’t start out well in their educational careers, the state ends up paying in the back end by financially supporting social agencies, and dealing with health issues and a loss of potential tax revenue.

“We have to pay for more – special education costs money,” she said. “Because more kids don’t start out well, we pay in the millions of dollars for crime and substance abuse treatment. Remedial education costs us money; kids start out behind and it’s hard to catch up.”