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Early Childhood Investment

July 26, 2007 By Senator John Hottinger, Special to Minnesota 2020

No Child Left Behind? That approach is meaningless as an education goal, if we allow children to start kindergarten behind and then spend millions of dollars trying to get the unprepared caught up.  A truly meaningful and efficient approach to reduce the achievement gap and improve children's academic future starts with a significant infusion of resources into early childhood education and care.  No Child Starts Behind is the necessary foundation to longer term education goals.
It is a fundamental obligation of families and society to prepare our children for the future - and to protect the future for our children.  One of the dramatic policy differences these days between conservatives and progressives is the long-term vision to meet that obligation.  Across the board, conservative approaches to long-term public policy- from climate change and public debt through universal health care - are locked in denial, passing problems and costs to the next generation in order to provide current comfort and avoid sacrifice today.  One of the most glaring examples of that moral and policy default is in the area of early childhood care and education and the rigid ideological barriers which hamper efforts to improve the lives and maximize social and economic opportunities for children.  

A brief history of what we now know about early childhood development is instructive.  For decades, we instinctively knew that it was good for children to have loving parents, nurturing families and supportive communities.  A number of social science studies dating back to before the 1950s give support to that belief.  By the mid-1990s additional evidence was added when advances in brain research showed a neurological basis for the connection between early nurturing and brain development. 

More recently, the work on the economics side of the picture conducted by Arthur J. Rolnick and Rob Grunewald at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, supplemented by research in human capital by others including Dr. James J. Heckman of the University of Chicago, have shown the remarkable return on investment for public expenditures that assist families in disadvantaged environments to have access to quality early childhood development.  The research shows benefits for all of society through increased workforce productivity, reduced levels of crime and improved family stability.

We're now armed with social research, neurological and economic tools to have confidence that the availability of information and quality options for parents in child care and early education can be a tremendous asset for the future.  But what should the progressive agenda be and what are the continuing barriers, especially from conservative ideologues?

The agenda can be straight forward.  Here's one view:


  1. First, focus further investment where the return is shown to be highest:  to families and children that face economic and social disadvantage.
  2. Assist parents with information about quality activities, programs and opportunities for child care and education, including parent education, so they can choose to access the best high-quality, standard-based early care and education for their child.
  3. Invest in what we know works by improving the capacity of early childhood care and education approaches which have demonstrated success, by implementing quality improvement guidelines and by fostering innovative approaches that are collaborative, accountable and have measurable results.
  4. Adequately fund programs that provide newborn visiting, intensive home visiting and early childhood screening in the earliest years to provide parents with additional help and information on their children.
  5. Create stronger interaction and collaboration between parents, early childhood systems and the traditional K-12 education system and improve results by developing closer systemic connections between early childhood options.

There is broad community support to help shape policies that can intelligently and cohesively shape the agenda.  Many early childhood groups from across a wide-spectrum of interests have coalesced behind the work of Ready 4 K, a St. Paul-based, non-partisan, non-profit organization with the stated mission to "assure that every young child in Minnesota enters kindergarten encouraged, supported, and fully prepared for learning success." 

Business community leaders, through such efforts as Minnesota Business for Early Learning with a membership of over 200 business leaders from over 100 Minnesota companies, have shown their understanding that early childhood programs improve workforce productivity and create a better community.  Businesses have also put financial resources into this effort by funding the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) which is doing research to find the most cost-effective ways to prepare at-risk children for school and the workforce.  MELF is currently researching a quality rating system to provide a tool to help inform parents on evaluating the quality of early childhood systems.  MELF plans to demonstrate what works, make recommendations for reinvesting public and private resources and find new ways to reach and support at-risk children.

Minnesota is also fortunate to serve as a national hub for detailed research on early childhood development.  In addition to the work at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, some of the most detailed analytical and intellectual support for the value of early childhood approaches comes from the work of Dr. Judy A. Temple of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota and from Drs. Arthur J. Reynolds and Suh-Ruu Ou from the University's Institute of Child Development.   The University's outstanding Center for Early Education and Development, with its focus on expanding awareness and understanding the nature of the early years, has partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in an Early Childhood Research Collaborative to promote a multidisciplinary research on early childhood development.

These intellectual resources can drive Minnesota to the forefront of state responses to the needs of children from birth to five, but not unless the objections of Minnesota's most ideological conservative opponents - as represented by EdWatch Minnesota -- are addressed.  Some of their objections are mythic in their origin and some are based on rigid opposition to society ever acting for its collective good.  Some concerns are driven by a misguided belief that the free market alone can fix any problem and that government help is always wrong.  But, most of the frequently-heard objections are driven by misinformation and misunderstanding.  The contrast:  a number of conservative national leaders including President George W. Bush and former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Alabama and Jeb Bush of Florida have been supportive of growth and innovation in early childhood programs, including the value of early social and emotional screening.  Conservative states such as Oklahoma and North Carolina have been leaders in establishing innovative and near-universal options for parents of their youngest children.

One of the most frequent misrepresentations that comes from the social right-wing is the claim that expanding and improving early childhood options for parents and their children creates a "Nanny state" where government takes over the role of parent.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

A progressive early childhood agenda necessarily includes a tremendous emphasis on strengthening families' ability to make the best choices for their children and on providing the necessary capacity to meet those needs.  Every part of the progressive agenda - from social and emotional screening to quality rating of early childhood programs - is focused on the goal of giving parents the best information and assistance, including financial assistance, available to give their children the opportunity to avoid falling behind in the earliest years.

As we move Minnesota forward to the kind of state we want it to be 15 years from now, we need to follow the path of reason and research, caring and information, wise investment and accountability.  If we use those criteria, the results will provide an early childhood system that has the resources to create vastly better outcomes and opportunities in the future.and to reach the goal of school readiness:  No Child Starts Behind.

Senator John Hottinger, former Senate Majority Leader, represented the Mankato-Saint Peter Area in the Minnesota Senate from 1991 to 2006.


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