Early childhood education has become a hot button issue in the policy world. Nobel prize winning labor economist James Heckman has spend a good portion of his career studying the effects of early childhood education. He concludes that when the United States spends a dollar on early childhood education, as a society we get a return of 7-10% per annum. He also points out other positiveeffects of investing in early childhood education, which entail “tackles inequality, at the same time it promotes productivity, and has a very high rate of return and I would defy other programs in the public arena to show rates of return that high.”
Minnesota’s largest pre k education program is called Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE). ECFE offers classes to parents and children starting as early as birth and continuing all the way up to kindergarten. Today it is run through local schooldistricts and 335 of the 340 school districts throughout the state choose to run ECFE. The percent of children under five who participate in some form of ECFE class is 24%. The program is a series of classes with a licensed teacher and requires both the parent and child to be present. The goals of the program are to teach children how to play, communicate, and interact with peers in order to help their brains develop cognitive brain function and for parents learn to how to become better parents.
The biggest aspect of the program that I take issue with is that in order for children to participate, a parent must be present. As stated earlier, one of the main reasons for pre k programs is to help reduce inequality. Many low-income families require both parents to work and provide income or are one-parent families or might not have transportation to get their children to these classes. By requiring parents to be present, I think the program eliminates a lot of the low-income families who might need the program most.
ECFE is funded using state aid, local levy and participant fees. The variable that goes into the state funding formula is a district’s population of children under five as opposed to number of children served. Since there is only one variable, the formula is pretty simple: $120 times the number of children in the school district under 5 or 150 which ever is higher. The formula for the state levy must raise $22,135,00. The way it generates the $22 million is by taking each district’s net tax capacity and multiplying it by whatever percent makes $22 million. Total aid is just revenue minus the levy.
One change I would like to see is that funding is provided to districts relative to how many students participate in the program as opposed to the number of potential students. I believe this will give districts an incentive to try to increase their enrollments.