Todd Otis, director of community partnership for Think Small
The Civic Caucus
8301 Creekside Circle #920,
Bloomington, MN 55437
March 2, 2012
Notes of the Discussion
Jon Bacal, David Broden (phone), Rick Campion, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje, Jim
Hetland (phone), Annabelle Joyce, Sallie Kemper, Johnson, Tim McDonald,
Summary of discussion
- Todd Otis, director of community
partnerships for Think Small, describes the history of early learning
advocacy in Minnesota and the opportunities for economic and social gains
for the state that could result from an increase in investment in quality
early learning programs. He discusses initiatives presently under way in
the administration of Governor Dayton and prospects for more state
investment in pre-kindergarten education.
A. Introduction of speaker
- Todd Otis is director of community
partnerships for Think Small, an early learning advocacy organization
based in the Twin Cities. After graduating from Harvard College in 1967,
Otis joined the Peace Corps and served in Senegal for two years. In 1970,
he received an MS degree in journalism from Columbia University. He worked
in corporate community relations and later served in the Minnesota House
of Representatives from 1979 to 1990. He was DFL Party Chair from 1990 to
1993 and then worked as a public affairs consultant on early childhood and
environmental issues. He served as President for Ready-4-K, an early
education advocacy group, from 2001 until its merger with Think Small in
In 1998 a privately funded commission was formed
to examine childcare financing, co-chaired by former Minneapolis Mayor Don
Fraser and Rochester businessman Bob Cady. The Commission met for two
years and included leaders from the private and public sector. It quickly
broadened the range of issues beyond childcare to include many facets of
school readiness and organizations that impact it. Among the commission's
recommendations was the creation of a Ready 4 K campaign to build public
support of early learning. Ready 4 K was incorporated in June 2001 to
build public awareness, enlist support from the business community,
organize the early childhood community and promote public policy to
improve school readiness in Minnesota. One of the most strategically
important steps Ready 4 K took was to recruit Dr. Art Rolnick of the 9th
Federal Reserve District to its Board. Dr. Rolnick expressed reluctance at
first, but when shown the longitudinal studies of the effectiveness of
quality early learning on low-income children, and the benefits to their
future, he joined the Board.
In 2003, Dr. Rolnick and his colleague at the
Federal Reserve, Rob Grunewald, published an important study showing that
investments in high-quality early education yield a high public return in
terms of lower educational costs, crime rates, and social service
expenses. Rolnick and Grunewald translated the data into return on
investment language, which resonated with business leaders in a powerful
way. Minnesota business leaders subsequently formed Minnesota Business for
Early Learning to develop a strategy for investing wisely in early
childhood education. The work of this group eventually led to the
establishment of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) in 2005.
Duane Benson led the formation of the Early Learning Foundation.
The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation
developed a market-based strategy for a public early learning program.
Civic Caucus notes of an interview with Laurie Davis describing the
strategy may be found online at:
THE PROBLEM: Large numbers of children are not prepared for
The Minnesota School Readiness Study, produced
annually by the Minnesota Department of Education, is an accepted means of
assessment for school readiness, Otis said. It is based on the
observations of entering kindergartners by trained kindergarten teachers
in five domains of child development. That study is the basis for the
statement that only about one half of entering kindergartners in Minnesota
are fully prepared for school success. Otis noted that such low numbers on
this assessment creates a weak foundation for later school success.
The link between school readiness and subsequent
performance was clearly demonstrated by a study conducted by Dr. Arthur
Reynolds of the Humphrey Institute. He showed that children not
kindergarten-ready in the domain of language and literacy were twice as
likely to fail the 3rd grade literacy assessment as children
who were proficient in language and literacy entering kindergarten.
Not-ready children were also twice as likely to require special education
compared to children who had been assessed as "proficient."
There is a financial cost as well: The Wilder
Foundation estimated that the K-12 system is forced to spend $112 million
more than it would if all children were ready for kindergarten.
Quality settings really matter to assure school
readiness, Otis said. He cited a Minnesota Department of Human Services
study of accredited childcare centers that showed much better school
readiness results than the statewide MDE annual sampling. The greatest
return on investment is for low-income children in quality settings, which
would indicate that providing access to quality early learning should be a
much higher public priority than it currently is. Even children from very
economically challenged families can excel, if they are exposed to quality
THE GOAL: Policy should aim to prepare all young people for school.
Ultimately, Otis said, the goal of Think Small
is to significantly increase access to quality early learning for young
children throughout Minnesota. He added that early learning should be
viewed in the context of a continuum with K-12 up through post-secondary
education. Each stage builds on the previous one: quality early learning
will improve K-12 education and beyond.
There are many different views on how quality
education can and should be offered, he said, both at home and in centers.
But the unifying theme is that quality pre-K education is key to K-12
THE STRATEGY: Increase the number of high-quality early learning
Otis said that in 2009, Ready 4 K brought
together the groups that lobby for pre-K education, and asked: If the
Governor and legislature asked for a plan to improve school readiness,
what would those groups tell the governor to do? (This was during the
run-up to the 2010 Gubernatorial election.) The group that represented
Head Start, home visiting, parent education and child care came up with
the "Minnesota's Future" agenda that includes five elements:
Improving access to parent education and home visiting
Doubling low income children's access to quality pre-K programs
Implementing a statewide quality rating system ("Parent Aware")
Forming community partnerships to improve school readiness
Advocating for a cabinet level position for early learning
During the past year serious progress has been
made on two of these agenda items: expansion of the Parent Aware quality
improvement and rating system and the creation of the Office of Early
Ratings: Gather and publish information on
One of the most important concepts put forward
by the early childhood community and MELF is the creation of an early
learning quality rating system, Otis said. Parents and guardians ought to
know which early care and education providers are of high quality, be they
child care, Head Start, or school-based programs, so those parents can
make better informed choices on behalf of their young children.
By providing information and incentives for
people to choose quality providers, a quality improvement and rating
system like Parent Aware empowers parents. By 2015, Parent Aware will be
expanded statewide, and that will raise the quality of early learning
Cabinet level attention: Legislative blocks
offset in part by Governor's support.
There was opposition to a quality rating system
by a small but powerful group of people in the Legislature who appear to
believe this kind of effort is a movement in the direction of government
raising children, a seriously mistaken view in Otis' mind. Parent Aware
only enlarges the importance and power of parents; in no way does it
diminish that power, he added.
However, the state's successful application for
federal "Race to the Top" funding provided a new opening for the early
learning programming that did not make it through the legislature. Of the
state's $45 million "Race to the Top" grant, some will be used to build up
the ratings system, some will be used for data sharing and some will go
toward scholarships for children to attend high-quality pre-K schools.
The Race to the Top elements constitute the
beginning of a coherent and effective early childhood system in Minnesota.
The application process that resulted in winning Race to the Top funds was
an important means of garnering Governor Dayton's full appreciation of the
issue and to his committing to put the key building blocks in place.
Early learning is one percent of the state
budget; double it.
It would cost somewhere around 250 million new
dollars per year to fund a robust early learning program, Otis contends.
The Start Early Funders group that includes a number of Minnesota-based
foundations agrees with that estimate. (By way of context, The Itasca
Project looked at the costs of providing quality child care for all 3 and
4 year-olds and estimated to do so would cost an additional $ 1 billion.)
"We've got one percent of the state budget going
to early learning right now; if we are going to make major strides in
school readiness we need to at least double it," Otis said. But the money
must go to quality programs.
He said the money could come from rethinking the
state's priorities, possibly by adopting a "budgeting for outcomes"
strategy, with the state allocating funds based on their expected return.
It could also come as part of an increase in revenue; if Minnesota
returned to the cost of government numbers in effect during Governor
Carlson's administration there would be a significant and appropriate
increase in revenue.
Otis added that based on polling, people are
willing to pay more taxes if they knew the increase were going to the
high-return investment in early learning.
A participant questioned whether funding already
earmarked for early childhood, such as the Head Start program, could be
redirected to programs with high quality ratings. Otis answered that in
the case of Head Start it already qualifies because it is high quality,
and that the program is already underfunded. "My problem with redirecting
Head Start money is if you're going to spend more why cannibalize within
the 1 percent of state spending already authorized for early childhood?
Why not find areas of less efficiency and lower return elsewhere in the
Currently early care and education is
fragmented; children can be cared for by staying home with a parent; by
informal arrangements with family, friends, or neighbors; in child care
centers; by Head Start; or in a school-based program. The creation of a
common standard of quality can help assure that no matter what program or
silo a child is in, he or she will have the best possible start. It is
also imperative to improve the linkages between early care and education
and the K-12 system. One model that was proven successful in Chicago is
the Chicago Parent Center model, that combines age three to grade three, a
concept that Minnesota has recently been funded to expand in our state.
Barriers to such integration should be taken down and flexibility should
be built into the system.
Ideally we are creating a system that is best
for the children, not just convenient for institutions, Otis said.
The benefits of preparing children to succeed in
school, Otis noted, will accrue to all children, even to those who already
come "ready for K" without further assistance. If all children are ready,
teachers will not be forced to spend remediation time on those students
who are not adequately prepared. And the benefits to the state's K-12
education, and thus the future economy, are extraordinary, if we lay a
solid foundation in early education.
"I find the biggest hurdle is inertia, the lack
of political will, but I see that changing under Governor Dayton and his
administration. The Governor and his key Commissioners really seem
committed to this issue." The trick is to create a system that will last,
that will survive any one particular administration, he added.
The chair thanked Mr. Otis for the very informative visit.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
Verne C. Johnson, chair; David Broden, Marianne Curry,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Marina Lyon,
Joe Mansky, John Mooty, Jim Olson,
and Wayne Popham