Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Untenable Choices: Full day kindergarten for all or pre-kindergarten for some?

In a positive step forward yesterday, the Minnesota House voted to pay for free all-day kindergarten statewide and to make early-childhood education programs more affordable.  It moves on to the Senate now, which has indicated support for similar legislation with some differences; the Senate plan calls for $50 million in preschool scholarships and $105 million for full day kindergarten whereas the House recommends spending $44 million on preschool and $130 million on full day K. 

It’s a start. 

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, Minnesota is one of twelve states that currently allow school districts to charge tuition to parents for the other half of the school day.  This is one of four arrangements happening in the United States—the other three; providing full day kindergarten for no additional cost, only allowing for half-day kindergarten, or no statutory requirement for kindergarten are the other three. 

Given those options nationwide, Minnesota’s new legislation would be closer to the head-of-the-pack.  The impact is summarized here:
-      Currently, about 75 percent of students have access to full day kindergarten, but about 10,000 families must pay for it. The bill will save those families $26 million.
-      Scholarships to low-income families so their children can attend preschool. (See chart below for additional info.)

You’ll note that the current funds proposed for early childhood, still don’t sufficiently provide for every child in Minnesota.  And—in the Senate version of the bill, funds are diverted from full-day K to early childhood scholarships (while still not meeting the needs for either). 

Not only is this an untenable choice for Minnesota families, its an untenable choice for all Minnesotans—and for every other state in our nation that’s failing to fully fund early childhood and kindergarten for all children. 

Why? Because we know that early investments in our students produce a higher rate of return, than just about any other social investment. In 2003, Rob Grunewald an economic analyst and Art Rolnick, the former research director at the Minneapolis Fed published a landmark paper estimating that dollars invested in high-quality preschool education for disadvantaged kids paid an inflation-adjusted 16 percent return. Other experts who reviewed the findings set it at 10 percent rather than 16. But the overall return is high, and clear: students who are ready to learn in kindergarten do better in school and beyond, become more productive workers, and are significantly less likely to burden the taxpayers with costs of crime and welfare. Or as Fredrick Douglass stated, “Easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

And, despite this new legislation putting us near the front of the pack nationally, we’re still trailing internationally.
According to the OECD Education at a Glance 2012, a study of its 34-member countries and several additional G20 countries:
-      Across the studied countries in 2010, 79 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education. In the European Union, the percentage was 83.
-      In comparison, only 69 percent of U.S. 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool education, ranking the U.S. 28th among 38 nations studied.
-      The top 15 countries, including many of our economic competitors, all had enrollments exceeding 90 percent.
-      The typical preschool starting age for U.S. children is 4, compared with a starting age of 3 or younger in 21 other OECD countries.

The OECD data suggest that enrollment in early childhood education correlates with higher educational achievement later. Students who received preschool education performed better at age 15 on international tests of reading, mathematics and science (using the Program for International Student Assessment-PISA). In fact, the more preschool education a child had, the higher their 15-year-old score. Students with one additional year of preschool had scores almost 10 points higher.

While the U.S. spends considerably more per 4-year-old pupil than the OECD average — $8,396 compared with $6,670 — much of our expenditure comes from private sources. Only 55 percent of U.S. preschool students were enrolled in public programs, compared with 84 percent in public or publicly supported private settings in other countries.
Given all of this, not only should we be fully funding a full day of kindergarten, we should also be ensuring that every child has access to high-quality pre-K. There certainly shouldn’t be a trade-off between the two.  And if we’re talking about what’s fiscally responsible, if there is another investment that the state is making or could make that pays for itself and then some, I can’t think of a more responsible investment.

So if you’ve gotten this far, and this is making sense, contact your Senator today and get behind this legislation.

It may not be perfect, but it’s a start.