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Early Childhood Education Takes Baby Steps Forward

June 10, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Laura Johnson doesn't need convincing about the value of early childhood education. Her four-year-old son, Martez, attends preschool at a Minneapolis YWCA and can tie his own shoes, count to 30, recite the alphabet and the days of the week, and has shown excellent hand-eye coordination in his coloring.

As far as Johnson is concerned, there is no doubt that Martez will be ready for kindergarten and the challenges that face him as he moves through school.

"What he's doing (developmentally) is at least as far ahead as a five-year-old," said Johnson, 29, from St. Louis Park. "He's at least a year ahead of other children his age and he's learning a lot more than I could offer him if he stayed at home."

Johnson's observations about Martez neatly sum up the positive value of early childhood education. Long-term peer-reviewed studies have shown that children who receive quality early childhood education are more likely to attend college, earn more money during their lifetime, spend less time on welfare and in the legal system, are more likely to earn skilled jobs and are less likely to smoke.

In fact, early childhood education can realize a return on investment of as much as $16 for every dollar spent over a person's lifetime, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis report in 2006. A 2007 study by the National Invitational Conference of the Early Childhood Research Collaborative found that early education would pay for itself within 17 years and by 2050 exceed costs by 8.2 to 1.

Yet despite the obvious economic and social benefits, Minnesota has not invested in early childhood education. The Minnesota Department of Education shows that only 52 percent of incoming kindergartners demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and behavior to be effective in school. Early Childhood and Family Education, with 126,367 children participating in the program in 2008, saw its budget drop 23 percent between 2001 and 2008. Head Start, with 17,779 children participating in the program, saw aid drop 17 percent between 2002 and 2008.

That's why the non-profit Ready4K  has been working to improve early childhood education in the state. They have seen some success in the Legislature but without appropriate funding, quality child care will die on the vine.

"If we currently devote 1 percent of the state's budget on early childhood education, then even if we go to 2 percent of the budget we'll help so many kids," said Todd Otis, executive director of Ready4K. Not only would there be long-term savings in welfare and legal costs as well as increased revenue, but even the K-12 system will see savings through decreased need for remedial services.

Ultimately, we all would benefit by having a citizenry that is educated and more adept at competing in the 21st century workplace, where Minnesota's competitors will come not only from California and Massachusetts but from India and China.

The legislature agreed to $2 million in bonding for the Early Childhood Grant Facilities Program, but Gov. Pawlenty vetoed the measure. However, the legislature beat back Pawlenty's attempts to cut the basic sliding fee for childcare programs by 5 percent.

Despite the lack of financial leadership from many lawmakers or Gov. Pawlenty, Ready4K believes it saw success in the 2010 legislative session. The organization believes the clarification of the duties of the Early Childhood Advisory Council could lead to the creation of an Office of Early Childhood Education which could coordinate childcare throughout the state. Currently early childhood data and funds are directed through the departments of education, health and human services. Lawmakers also directed the ECAC to explore how Minnesota can create a statewide school readiness report to improve screening and assessment of young children.

Looking ahead, Ready4K has these five goals for the next governor:

  •  Offer home visits and parent education to every first-time parent to help get her children off to a great start;
  • Double the number of at-risk children who participate in high-quality early learning opportunities;
  • Implement a statewide quality rating and improvement system for early learning programs;
  • Create community partnerships to coordinate and leverage investments in children's and families' success;
  • Appoint a cabinet-level position to lead a statewide system of child development and early learning services.

"We must make early childhood education a priority," Otis said. "We know that the ripple effect is huge, with K-12 benefitting, less crime, even beneficial effects on health and home ownership. The effects are seen 20 years out."

The question is when will the state make early childhood education a priority? When will lawmakers understand that a penny spent on a child at age four can save not only money, but also that child's well-being and place in society?

Laura Johnson doesn't need any convincing. She receives financial help from Hennepin County to send Martez to the YWCA. He developed a stuttering problem several months ago and has received help from several specialists as well as his regular caregivers.

"A lot of kids he's around stay at home during the day," Johnson said. "Their social skills are not as good, they're more into gadgets and TV because that's what they do all day."

Johnson made it clear: If she has another child, she would like to provide that child a similar curriculum.

While the Legislature and the governor play the early education game on a grand, statewide scale, it is important to remember people like Martez Johnson. The odds are vastly in his favor thanks to early childhood education.


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