here for PDF format
for Participant Responses to this Summary
of Meeting with Duane Benson
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Thursday, July 10,
speaker: Duane Benson,
executive director, Minnesota Early Learning Foundation
Johnson, chair; Bill Frenzel (by phone), Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland (by
phone), Jim Olson (by phone), Wayne Popham (by phone), and Clarence
Shallbetter (by phone)
Context of the meeting--This
is the first of several meetings the Civic Caucus intends to hold over the
next several months, providing background on major education issues facing
Welcome and introduction--Verne
and Paul welcomed and introduced Duane Benson,
executive director, Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF). Benson
was executive director
of the Minnesota Business Partnership from 1994 to 2003. He served in the
Minnesota Senate from 1980 to 1994, and was the Senate Minority Leader for
a time. He graduated with honors from Hamline University. Benson was
drafted into the NFL and played eleven seasons as a linebacker for the
Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons, and Houston Oilers. He continues to own
and operate a cattle farm outside of Lanesboro and is active in numerous
civic and charitable organizations. Benson is a member of the Minnesota
State Colleges & Universities Board of Trustees.
Comments and discussion--During
Benson's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Purpose of the Minnesota Early Learning
Foundation (MELF)--MELF is a tax-exempt educational
organization with the purpose of identifying cost-effective ways of
ensuring that Minnesota's children ages prenatal to 5, from low-income or
challenged families, are ready for success in school. MELF's website
states that the organization "will support programs and initiatives that
educate, inform, and empower parents, particularly in Minnesota's
fast-growing immigrant communities and other under-served communities."
2. MELF Board of Directors--The MELF
Board includes the CEOs of Best Buy, Ecolab, BlueCross/Blue Shield of
Minnesota, United Healthcare, the University of Minnesota, Liberty
Diversified, Taylor Corporation, United Way, Minnesota Business
Partnership, the retired chairman of Cargill, leaders of the Federal
Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, the McKnight Foundation, and others.
3. A temporary, not a permanent organization--Benson
said that MELF, founded in 2005, will be discontinued on December 31,
2011. It is funded only with private funds, with a fund-raising objective
of $30 million during its years of existence.
4. Main objective--Governmental
jurisdictions are investing in Minnesota now some $700 million a year on
children from pre-natal to age 5, Benson said In addition another $1.4
billion is estimated to be spent annually privately via cash or in-kind
expenditures (including family-member child care), he said. The current
system is characterized by (1) no common vision or shared goals (2)
numerous, unaligned collaborative efforts, (3) no single mandated
authority to align program and policy, and (4) no statewide mechanism to
coordinate across funding streams.
illustrate his point about lack of overall direction, Benson distributed a
chart that MELF has prepared to illustrate how some 25 different parties
involved with care and education of pre-school children relate to one
another on funding and on collaboration. The chart is an effort to
illustrate that no one can make sense of the system today.
objective, he said, is to prepare a plan for intelligent use of the
dollars and to give parents the tools to evaluate and make choices among
competing providers, public and private. Currently the system is
supply-driven; MELF wants to make it demand-driven, he said.
5. The need--MELF believes that
success of the K-12 system depends upon what happens in pre-natal through
pre-school. About 50 percent of the children who today arrive at the
K-12 system are ready for kindergarten, he said. MELF has a goal of
increasing the percentage to at least 85 percent. The vast majority of
brain development occurs before a child reaches five years of age, he
repeated findings outlined by Art Rolnick, a board member of MELF, in a
Civic Caucus interview on January 3, 2008. In that interview, Rolnick
reported on a study conducted by the Highscope/Perry Preschool Study in
Ypsilanti, MI, which tracked 123 low-income African-Americans over 40
years, beginning when the individuals were three and four years old. For
five years in the mid-1960s, teachers worked with the children closely and
visited them once each week in their homes. The study demonstrated that
the children who received extra attention were more likely to graduate,
had lower crime rates, and had a higher income than their peers who didn't
participate. Rolnick said the Highscope/Perry study report demonstrated
that for every dollar invested, $17 was returned on the investment. That
figure was calculated as money saved because the public didn't have to
incarcerate or remediate the formerly at-risk people, and money earned
because they got jobs and paid taxes.
6. Projects under way--MELF's latest
annual report outlines its major areas of activity:
--A parent aware quality rating system that
provides parents with an online system to choose early learning providers
based on objective ratings. Some 180 providers had signed up by the end
of 2007 to participate in the rating system.
--An early childhood scholarship program was
started in St. Paul to assess gains in reading readiness if low-income
parents (a) were supported by parenting mentors and (b) were provided with
resources to allow them to afford consistent, quality care.
--Pilot projects have been launched in north
Minneapolis, two neighborhoods in St. Paul, Wayzata/Plymouth and in Blue
Earth and Nicollet Counties. These projects are intended to increase
learning readiness among low income families by funding a well-integrated
set of best-practice strategies for early childhood education and
--An evaluation process has been launched with the
University of Minnesota and three other nationally-known evaluators.
7. Distinction between MELF and Early
Childhood Family Education (ECFE)--A major difference between
MELF and ECFE, a program of the Minnesota Department of Education, is that
MELF works exclusively with at-risk children, while ECFE, according to
Benson, provides the bulk of its support for middle-class families. A
Civic Caucus member also noted that Head Start is a long-standing
federally-supported early childhood program. Benson said whatever the
final outcome of MELF's work, its recommendations will be designed to
integrate with ECFE and Head Start, not to be an add-on.
Caucus member said that two-parent, two-earner middle income families
probably regard child care as their No. 1 need, because the child care is
making it possible for both parents to work. Ultimately, he said, he's
confident that the MELF work will present great value to everyone because
of its quality rating system.
mentioned a program in Grand Rapids, MI, known as "Savvy Source", which is
somewhat of a model for MELF's efforts.
8. Overcoming protectionist mindsets--Among
public and private organizations and providers in Minnesota there's a lot
of what Benson called "underbrush" with an "I can do it best" mindset.
But he is confident that empowering parents will change the situation.
Already, he said, day-care providers in St. Paul are asking what they need
to do to receive a four-start rating in the competitive environment.
9. Better success with recent immigrant groups--Looking
at the total of all at-risk children and families in the state, Benson
said that recent immigrants seem to be seeing the need best and responding
best to a new system of parent-based choice. Too many others continue to
think almost exclusively of "day care", instead of "early childhood
learning", he said.
10. Long term management of the rating system--Since
MELF is scheduled to sunset on December 31, 2011, a question was raised
where the early childhood rating system will be permanently located.
Benson said his preference is for an independent rating organization, but
he has not yet succeeded in that objective. His second preference would
be the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and his third preference,
the Minnesota Department of Education.
11. Importance of health and human services
involvement--Benson highlighted the importance of identifying
at-risk children even before they are born, by working with at-risk
parents. That's an area of health and services involvement, he said, not
of placing early childhood learning in the Department of Education extends
also to the way the Legislature is structured, Benson said. The House has
a stand-alone Early Childhood Finance Division, separate from K-12, while
early childhood is under the Senate K-12 Education Budget Division.
12. Whether changes in K-12 are needed--In
response to a question Benson said MELF's chief interest is on preparing
pre-natal to pre-kindergarten children for kindergarten. MELF is not
directly addressing the question of whether the K-12 system needs changes
to better deal with the children it receives. Benson suggested the Civic
Caucus might want to visit with Steve Shank, founder of Capella Education
Company, the parent of Capella University, an on-line university, for a
discussion on how to change the system. As a member of the board of
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Benson said he is fascinated by
the good job that is being done by the on-line universities. Many
professors in the state system are moonlighting at the online
institutions. Shank's message, Benson said, is that you can't change
the system internally. It must be done externally. That's why moving
from a supply-driven system to a demand-driven system is so important in
pre-kindergarten and, he said, probably in the K-12 system.
13. Big K-12 investment in special education--A
Civic Caucus member noted that special education, a big specialty area
with its own certification, is receiving an ever larger share of the
school budget. A big part of special education, the member said, is
working with the children who are not ready for kindergarten when they
said of the 50 percent who aren't ready for kindergarten, about 20 to 25
percent will catch up by the third grade. The other 20-25 percent can't
read in the third grade and ultimately are most likely to drop out of high
14. Changes in the nature of the Legislature--As
a former minority leader in the Senate, Benson was asked whether he's seen
changes in the Legislature since he left in 1994. The big change, he
said, is the concentration of power in the leadership. With the caucuses
raising lots of money for campaigns, we now see that legislators are more
dependent for campaign support on the leadership of their caucus than they
are on their constituents. Thus, the power of the leadership is
strengthened when it comes to the end-of-session decisions. Most members
of the Legislature had no idea what was going on at the end of the 2008
session, he said. The concentration of power in the leadership is a
much bigger concern of Benson's than, say, the role of the precinct
15. Possible changes in campaign finance--Benson
suggested that possibly campaign finance laws could be changed to require
that any donor must be a resident of the district in which a recipient
15. Diminished importance of "natural"
legislator coalitions--In response to a question about the
significance of party designation of legislators, Benson said that before
1973, when party designation was started, legislators representing common
geographical areas or with common interests in issues used such "natural"
coalitions much more. Now the natural coalitions are playing second
fiddle to the party interest, he said. An exception, he said, is a
fairly large natural coalition of legislators, with a membership of 80,
that has developed around early childhood learning. That natural
coalition is opposed by people on the far right, fearing too much state
involvement in parenting, and on the far left, unions, who don't like the
extent of non-union labor among early childhood providers.
16. Fear of taking the easy way out on
legislation--A Civic Caucus member noted that legislators need
a fairly sophisticated approach in dealing with child care, to understand,
for example, the nature and implications of overlapping funding and
objectives. The member recalled a similar situation with Congress,
involving foster care. The temptation of lawmakers is to pass the
simplest parts of a proposal, the member said. Thus, he suggested, MELF
needs to realize that the Minnesota Legislature, while respecting the need
to keep early childhood evaluation independent, might end up handing the
responsibility to a party of interest, such as the Department of
Caucus member said leadership by an enlightened Governor might help
improve the legislative product. Benson replied that he is doing his
best, now, two years before the next election for Governor, to meet
one-on-one with potential candidates to improve their understanding of
early childhood learning.
suggested that the early childhood movement needs to find a way to
differentiate itself from "education", because of the strong correlation
of that word with the traditional K-12 system.
17. Dilemma facing legislators--A
Civic Caucus member speculated that legislators have a difficult time
dealing with the early childhood issue. The existing early childhood
system is characterized by comparatively lower pupil-teacher ratios and
comparatively lower pay than is present in the K-12 system. Legislators
fear the cost implications of placing early childhood into the K-12 system
if the result is keeping the pupil-teacher ratios low while increasing
salaries to the K-12 level.
18. Possible other thought leaders on early
childhood--Asked who might be invited to discuss the early
childhood issue with the Civic Caucus, Benson suggested Robert Ostlund,
former superintendent of the Wayzata Public Schools; Art Rolnick of the
Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank; Warren Staley, retired chairman of
Cargill and MELF board member, and Rob Johnson, formerly with Cargill and
MELF board member. Ostlund, Benson said, has a particularly strong
commitment to investing in early childhood learning.
asked Civic Caucus members to suggest foundations that might be open to
providing more support for early childhood learning.
19. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Benson for meeting with us today.