here for PDF format
Click here for participants' responses to this interview.
Laurie Davis, Policy
Director, Minnesota Early Learning Foundation
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle #920, Bloomington, MN 55437
May 28, 2010
Verne Johnson (Chair); Janis Clay, Paul Gilje, Jan Hively, Dan Loritz,
Marianne Curry, Tim McDonald, Jim Olson, Paul Taylor, Bob White
Early childhood learning is a high-potential area for making a
positive impact. The goal of preparing young children for school would be
best served by a more market-driven system with publicly sourced funding
for low income families and a rating system that provides all parents with
information about program quality. The
Minnesota Early Learning
Foundation currently supports a pilot rating program called Parent Aware.
parents to make informed decisions there must be clear, evidence-based
consistent information about providers and the quality of their services
so that consumers may make informed choices. Tax credits for low-income
students should be dealt directly to the providers. This provides
incentives for early learning programs to be continually improving quality
and serving the low-income children who stand to benefit the most from
such programs, in terms of improvements in school readiness.
A. Context of the meeting—
The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation has been rethinking, redesigning
and implementing a new idea for early childhood learning. Instead of
running particular programs, they seek to create conditions that will help
ensure the best performance of those programs that do exist. Today the
Civic Caucus will hear about an effort to help parents become
knowledgeable consumers, and governments to become knowledgeable payers,
of early learning programs.
B. Welcome and introductions—
Laurie Davis is policy director for the Minnesota Early Learning
Foundation. Laurie is a partner in Advance Consulting LLC, a public policy
consulting firm with a mission of improving the lives of children and
families. Advance Consulting works with a number of non-profit, government
and private clients on issues including early childhood, K-12 education,
child support, health care, social services, father empowerment, youth
development, economic development and self-sufficiency. Prior to founding
Advance Consulting, Laurie worked with the Minnesota Department of Human
Services, the governor’s budget office in the Commonwealth of
Massachusetts, a public policy and lobbying firm in Chicago and in the
change management group at Accenture.
C. Comments and discussion—During
Davis’s visit with the Civic Caucus, the following points were raised:
1. Background on
Minnesota Early Learning Foundation--The
Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) was created in 2005 and will
sunset in 2011. It was created to find cost-effective ways to improve the
school readiness of what they term “high-return kids.” That is, low-income
young children most likely to enter kindergarten without the skills
necessary for success.
Describing MELF’s work
Laurie said that, “We’re not in business to design and create a program”
of early learning, but instead we are trying to connect high return kids
with high quality programs by providing parents with information about
program quality and providing low-income parents with the resources
necessary to access those quality programs.
Approximately 50 percent of
young people are not properly prepared for Kindergarten—and not just
low-income children. There is an immediate public financial interest in
early learning: presently $400 million in public money is devoted to early
childhood endeavors in Minnesota each year.
information is essential to effective early childhood education--“Parents
are flying blind,” Davis said, when they are making these important
investments in time and money for early childhood education.” Apart from
word of mouth recommendations, “there is little information available to
help them discern whether one program is more effective than another” on
cost, or performance.
3. Rating system
developed to evaluate providers--So
the foundation sought to meet this need for information. The principal
means is their Parent Aware program (http://www.parentawareratings.org/),
of which early childhood providers volunteer to be evaluated as part of a
rating system. MELF administers the rating system in partnership with the
Departments of Human Services and Education, the University of Minnesota,
the Minnesota Child Care Resource & Referral Network, and local resource
and referral agencies in the pilot areas.
The participating early
learning provider first attends an orientation and decides that they would
like to move ahead. The provider then gathers documents and materials then
sends them to Parent Aware for review, and eventually trained observers
from the University of Minnesota Center for Early Education and
Development go out to the program to observe.
“At first this makes many
providers hesitant,” Davis said about the providers, but soon they come to
“love it because they get a very rich report on what they are doing well
and can do better.”
The program has a four star
rating system. The Departments of Human Services and Education bestow the
rating, because they have an infrastructure to gather and analyze the
information that goes into each program’s rating.
information is central--This
program is about improving information for the parents. In other states,
ratings are meant as an indicator for government funding. Instead here, it
is consumer information. “Parent Aware has clearly filled a vacuum,” Davis
commented. “Resources are coming in from all over the place” that align
with the framework of Parent Aware. In Saint Paul, there is a scholarship
program that provides funding to low-income parents to enter programs with
three and four stars under the rating system.
A member asked what share of
the market the program covers? Davis replied that 16 percent of eligible
programs in Saint Paul are rated. They are very happy with these numbers,
particularly for a pilot program. There are over 300 programs involved.
“We have the highest portion
of families with two working parents of anywhere in the country,” Davis
said of Minnesota. Most young children are involved in some sort of care.
“For kids two years old and younger, 26 percent use only parent care. For
3-5 year olds, its 21 percent.”
The Parent Aware program is
a pilot, and ends June 30th. Its evaluation will come out in
October. The foundation will be looking at the relationship between the
star rating of an early learning provider and the progress of students
toward school readiness. “We will be very honest about what we learn and
advocate to make it as accurate as we can.” Beginning July 1, 2010, the
State will fund operation of the pilot for an additional year.
5. The rating system
must not be solely the prevue of government--“If
you have a government run rating system, immediately the providers put
pressures on the policy makers to water down the standards.” The example
Davis gave to illustrate the point is lowering of Minnesota’s high school
graduation standards. There are numerous examples of when there is only
government oversight, the standards go down. “We’re going to be relentless
on the private side to be a rigorous watchdog as the rating system goes
This is parent information.
State government is not positioned like private organizations to demand
responsiveness and quality.
6. Early childhood
learning is a key to closing the achievement gap--“This
is such a long-term problem,” a member observed, about the achievement
gap. “Generally the numbers of K-12 for the last 50 years have come out to
be that 20 percent of students are world-class; 40 percent do very well;
and 40 percent do badly.” Now that split seems more like 20 percent doing
alright; 30 percent alright and 50 percent poorly. “How much do you think
you can influence?”
“We’d be foolish to write
off any children,” Davis responded, “particularly when you’re talking
about 0 to 5-year olds.” Because of the high potential of intervening in
the early years, MELF is confident that the early-years approach can have
a significant impact.
There was some confusion
during the discussion about what the proper role of government in early
childhood. Davis clarified that the government may be the payer for
scholarships, but that the majority of the providers would be private (as
they are now) and the rating of the providers would be much stronger and
remain focused on children if there was continued private-sector
program not desirable--The
foundation does not want to create a state-run program. There are states
considering constitutional amendments to roll early childhood into public
funding. That is the wrong approach, she argued, if in turn the services
would be provided in the same controlled model as K-12. Instead, control
of programs needs to remain decentralized and limited public resources
should be targeted at high-return families that don’t have the resources
to access high-quality programs.
8. Financing early
childhood learning and its evaluation--People
spend more on their childcare sometimes than on their housing, Davis said.
This is unpredictable for providers; so families are treated differently
based upon whether they have a consistent scholarship or are operating on
the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) or private pay. CCAP is the
welfare program that provides childcare for working parents.
“We say to them, give this
high-return child a high quality experience and we’re going to make sure
you get paid.”
Who would want to go into
this industry at such a lousy rate of pay, a member asked? “MELF believes
significant, refundable tax credits available to early learning staff
would encourage people to enter or stay in the profession and to improve
their education and training to help them better serve children,” Davis
impressed. “Say you’ve taken care of your own kids and decide you’d like
to make a career teaching other young children. We’d like to create a
system where you have incentive to get that training, and to serve the
children most likely to benefit from the quality services you provide.
Otherwise what we’re left with is the nursing home model—lowest paid
people providing one of the most important services to some of our most
Qualifications of staff are
among the criteria for ratings in Parent Aware. Since early childhood
programs are non-unionized they have more flexibility from the start,
compared to the K-12 system. “The ratings don’t set up a situation where
we are mandating that everyone have a masters degree.”
9. High return on
scholarships requires a significant capital outlay in the beginning, but
MELF argues that its return on investment is substantial. Using the
numbers from MELF’s current scholarship pilot, it would cost the state
around $13,000 per year for a full-time, center-based scholarship. This is
economic development, Davis said. There is a 16:1 return on investment.
“MELF board member Art
Rolnick estimates we’d need a $1.5 billion endowment to do parent
mentoring and early learning programs for all high-return kids in
Minnesota,” Davis said.
“This falls into
redesigning. The state has no money. It doesn’t make sense to say the
solution is simply to put more money into a system that is failing to
fully prepare 50 percent of our children. We believe the State should link
all funding to quality.”
10. Emphasis on tax
the MELF proposal, tax credits would be given directly to the providers.
The programs should receive the credits because it’s challenging to get
low-income families to access tax credits – they may not file tax returns,
and it would be challenging to really link the money to connecting
children with high quality programs. Channeling the credits through the
provider has many advantages - credits may be provided for just the kinds
of things you want to incent: higher quality ratings and serving
high-return children. In addition, the quality provider becomes the agent
for recruiting the high-return family to their program – it benefits both
the provider and the families who need the services most.
For this to work, programs
have got to be rated. “Even if you have one star, you get something.” That
will encourage people to participate. Also, the credits would be
structured so that those serving lower-income students get more. The
financing may be arranged to cut out the government middleman. Let the
private providers market to would-be consumers directly, which is most
effective and does not require setting up an entire government
The MELF’s Parent Aware and
Saint Paul Early Childhood Scholarship programs are the pilot test of
economist Art Rolnick’s model of using early childhood development
programs as an economic development engine, Davis said. “He’ll say that
this is a far better public investment than building stadiums.”
MELF would like to see a
public-private partnership as the Parent Aware system goes statewide.
There needs to be a stable funding source to underwrite evaluation because
the availability of consistent information is necessary for a sound
process of selecting the best providers. The private side would also be
better situated to market the ratings to parents, and would serve as a
watchdog to monitor the rigor of the rating standards over time.
11. There is
remarkable potential for volunteers as well--The
potential for public good is not just limited to the gains made by
otherwise unprepared students.
Part of a larger effort at
school readiness will involve helping parents understand all the things
that go into helping children become school-ready, starting at home.
“There are families don’t have any books in their home, because they don’t
know that is what you are supposed to do.”
“Kids from all walks of life
are coming to school without the skills necessary for success - there are
kids who stay home with their parents that are way far behind.
Well-designed, high-intensity programming has positive impact on all
students. Parents need to become involved, whether their children are home
with them or spending time in early learning programs,” but that itself
takes high capacity in a program. There is much to do. Working with
teenage mothers, and the special challenges facing them, opens another
“It seems like we need a
strong mentoring program,” a member observed. There are many retired
people, and that number is rising. “There’s this cadre of people out there
waiting to make a contribution to the community.” This can get older
adults more active, provide affordable labor, and keep retirees vital and
contributing in a meaningful way.
Yes, Davis agreed—“The only
way many early learning programs can operate is through volunteers – the
programs and the children they serve would really benefit from an even
stronger volunteer base.”
12. The future of
of the pressures on the budget, Davis said that the foundation anticipates
the 2011 legislature to provide less money for all services, likely
including early childhood.
“We would not say right now
that the state should start by putting more money into the system.
Overall, there may be a need for more money to provide access for all high
return children, but we’d say the state needs to reform how it spends
There are policy decisions
that can be made, i.e. only spend money on highly rated programs. MELF is
focused on promoting the package of school readiness tax credits. Absent
the $1.5 billion endowment, for the time being they are focusing their
efforts at that tax credit position.
13. Broad support
for combining funding with evaluation--“People
are desperate for solutions,” Davis said, and like this strategy because
it does not just say spend more money. Politicians, unions business
groups and others support combining funding with evaluation to improve the
cost and effectiveness of early childhood programs. This is an approach
that empowers parents, provides the choice to opt-in and the choice over
the type of program that parents pursue.
They enjoy broad support.
“We’re not a traditional advocacy organization. We’re not going to focus
on asking for money, but instead on how we can be spending better. The
MELF board is committed, plugged in and engaged—like the Civic
Caucus—they’re having these sorts of discussions around the table.”
In sum, looking out at the
long term, a member asked Davis, what her suggestions are for redesigning
public schooling to include early childhood.
She broke it down to two
parts: School readiness rewards and incentives, and quality ratings of
providers. “Its all about information and access.” One does not work
without the other.
“Art (Rolnick) says this is
about creating a well functioning market.” And those are two important
Thank you to Laurie for a