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COMMENTARY: Greater Minnesota needs early learning scholarships

Minnesota has some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation. Achievement gaps are differences in the level of proficiency between different groups of children, such as racial, ethnic and income groups. If we are going to have an equitable and prosperous future, we need to work together to fix this. Specifically, we have to invest in early education in a way that works in all parts of the state, not just the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

I have some experience on this front. Over a period of 30 years, I was part of an amazing team that helped bring high-quality early education to a very remote and sparsely populated part of Minnesota, the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Barb Fabre

On White Earth, choices for a high quality early education program were extremely limited and were not enough to help the many children that needed it. After bringing Parent Aware quality improvement coaching and Early Learning Scholarships to our community, I'm proud to say that 91 percent of the available programs on White Earth are now high-quality Parent Aware-rated, and are benefiting approximately 400 children every year.

While doing this work, I saw what type of early education tools work in Greater Minnesota communities. Here is what I observed:

First, we have to stimulate fast-developing young brains early in life. For the most vulnerable children, achievement gaps can be measured as early as age one. If we want these kids to be ready for kindergarten, we can't ignore them until age four.

Second, we need to direct limited state funding to the most at-risk children. About 35,000 low-income children in Minnesota are in families that can't afford the quality programs they so desperately need. These are the children who are most likely to fall into achievement gaps, so we must prioritize funding to close the opportunity gap in their lives.

Third, we must insist on quality. We have to require that our children are benefiting from the use of kindergarten-readiness best practices. Putting children in low-quality programs often doesn't prepare them for kindergarten, and may even set back their learning. So, we must insist on quality, and help providers adopt those best practices.

Finally, in Greater Minnesota, we need flexibility. Every region has a slightly different mix of early education options available to families. For that reason, we need an early education approach that's flexible enough to work with ALL types of quality programs, whether they're based in centers, nonprofits, Head Start, homes, schools, or religious organizations. We also need the flexibility to offer parents full-day, full-year options, because part-day, part-year programs just don't work for parents working full-time.

In my experience, one early education approach meets all four of those needs: Early Learning Scholarships (Pathway I type). Scholarships prioritize the most vulnerable children, instead of continuing to leave them behind. Scholarships start as early as infancy, to allow us prevent achievement gaps from opening. Scholarships provide multiple years of full-day, full-year options that vulnerable children and working parents need. Scholarships work in any type of community, because they can be used in centers, nonprofits, Head Start, homes, schools and religious organizations.

Over the years, we've seen strong evidence that scholarships are working quite well in Greater Minnesota. While some initially worried that scholarships would be used mostly in the metro area, about 52 percent of scholarships are being used in Greater Minnesota. Since about 48 percent of eligible children are in Greater Minnesota, that's impressive.

Here's the best news of all: Children in Parent Aware-rated programs are making significant gains in kindergarten-readiness measures. These measures include executive function, phonological awareness, expressive and receptive vocabulary, social competence, pre-math skills and print knowledge. Low-income children are making even stronger gains than children overall. These are the basic skills kids need to succeed later in school, careers and life.

Beyond benefits to children, one other reason to invest in scholarships is to alleviate Minnesota's child care shortage, which is very serious in some parts of Greater Minnesota. Scholarship investments inject millions in new resources to the struggling child care sector, so we can retain and add more quality child care capacity to ease the shortage.

Over the last decade, we've seen that scholarships work very well in all parts of Minnesota. So now it's time to invest in the futures of those 35,000 left-behind children and make Minnesota's worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps a thing of the past.

Barb Fabre, Bagley, is CEO of Indigenous Visioning and former director of the White Earth Child Care/Early Childhood Program.