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At Issue: Opening the door to early learning

Published (5/2/2008)
By Thomas Hammell
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It’s hard to disagree that it’s a good thing to have children ready to learn when they start kindergarten. The question is how to get all children ready, when economic factors, types of child care and early childhood learning opportunities vary so greatly.

Researchers, including Art Rolnick, senior vice president and director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, see positive results from early childhood education. But it wasn’t until bank staff crunched the numbers that anyone had looked at this as an economic investment. By Rolnick’s calculations, the return would be equivalent to 16 percent annually on a $22,000 investment.

More focus on early childhood learning by establishing an Office of Early Learning might just help boost the bottom line, supporters say. The office would gather employees of the Health and Human Services departments who oversee day care programs and Department of Education employees who deal with programs like Head Start.

Rep. Sandra Peterson (DFL-New Hope) sponsors HF2983, which would create the office and appoint a director to coordinate childhood systems between the two organizations.

The House bill is tabled because Peterson did not want it added to the omnibus K-12 education bill with the state facing a projected $935 million biennial deficit based off the February Economic Forecast. A companion, SF3153, sponsored by Sen. Tarryl Clark (DFL-St. Cloud), awaits action by the Senate Education Committee.

However, Peterson successfully added an amendment to the omnibus education policy bill (HF2475), which would add six members to the Early Childhood Family Education Advisory Council.

The council, established under the federal Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, is charged with studying early childhood education in the state. New members would equally represent the House, Senate and parents. Council duties would be expanded, under the bill, to include recommending efficient and effective ways to leverage state and federal money for early childhood programs; recommend ways to coordinate these programs through an Office of Early Learning; and recommend to the governor and Legislature how to most effectively create a high quality early childhood system so that all children are school-ready by 2020.

The program’s $25,000 cost would be equally split between federal child care and development funds and pre-kindergarten exploratory project administrative funds.

These programs were once consolidated in the Department of Children, Families and Learning. During the 2003 budget cuts, strictly educational programs became part of the re-constituted Department of Education, and the rest of the programs became part of the Department of Human Services.

A new office, Peterson said, would be more like the current Office of Higher Education.

For the last few years, Rep. Nora Slawik (DFL-Maplewood) has carried a bill to create a similar council.

“The first thing was to get that and then to do the office,” she said. With a DFL-controlled House, the idea has more chance of success this year, she said.

Rep. Lynn Wardlow (R-Eagan), who co-chairs the bipartisan Early Childhood Caucus with Peterson, would not like to see added bureaucracy, but supports the office because the state is under-investing in early childhood education.

However, others in his caucus do not favor adding the office, including Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), lead Republican on the House E-12 Education Committee.

“I think we have to be careful of growing government if it’s not necessary,” she said. Plus, she believes the office could have the effect of separating the Department of Education from early childhood programs.

Karen Carlson, early learning services director for the Department of Education, has worked under both systems. The departments work together now, but she said it was easier to get things done when both were under one roof.

Both departments have the goal of creating well-prepared youth, but they have different interests in attaining that objective.

“Child care is a private business and they have worries and concerns that school teachers don’t have to worry about,” Carlson said. There are early childhood indicators of progress, which are guidelines that align with the K-12 standards. “I think the goal of this office is to get all the kids sort of at the same level of standards and attention given them.”

Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner for children and family services at DHS, said the department does not have an official position, but is concerned about the way the office would be structured.

Two agencies working together with different organizational styles can make things more complicated, he said. “But I think you get the value of having the two different perspectives in that discussion.”

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