Smarter Government for Smarter Kids

Whether you prefer small government or big government, perhaps the better conversation is around what smarter government could do. Smart government requires collaboration and a long-term vision. It helps when you can start from a place of shared interest. An op-ed in the Star Tribune on March 9 talked about ending the current "hodgepodge approach to early education in Minnesota." Amidst all of the areas of disagreement happening at both state and federal levels, our children - our next generation - continue to be a topic where legislators can find common ground. 

At Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), smart investments in kids have been part of the Foundation's 30 year history. It makes sense that if you want a long-term competitive global advantage, you start young. From our experience, we know this to be true, and studies prove this out. University of Chicago Professor and Nobel Laureate in economics James J. Heckman's newest analysis shows that "high-quality birth-to-five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent per year return on investment."

In our rural communities, SMIF has advocated against any sort of "silver bullet" approach to providing early childhood care. However, this does not mean that as a state we can't find some efficiencies in how early childhood investments are allocated. The proposed bill for an Early Childhood Access Fund, with a special director to provide oversight, could cut back on the current piecemeal approach. However, the issue is complex and the answers will not come without a lot of collaborative discussion with child care providers, trainers, certifiers, educators and funders. We've seen what happens when a bill gets proposed without affected partners getting a chance to weigh in.

Starting with the achievement gaps in early education can help address other issues facing Minnesota. Again, going back to research, we know that while Minnesota often leads the way in education, we are near the bottom when it comes to the achievement gap between white children and children of color. 40,000 low-income kids in our state don't have access to affordable, quality early learning programs (Close Gaps by 5). Given the 400,000 worker shortfall Minnesota is facing by 2030, we're not in a position to be letting any children fall behind.

Furthermore, we are in the midst of an early childhood care crisis that has become an economic development threat. Current child care providers are retiring, there's a gap between what providers are paid and what parents can pay, and businesses are struggling to recruit workers because they can't promise access to affordable care. This is another area where a short-term fix won't be enough; we need smart, long-term approaches and lawmakers who understand the many variables involved.

SMIF's role is just one of a much larger effort to address these issues. SMIF's Quality Child Care Program has been providing a model to get our child care providers on the path to higher quality. Another bill pending in the Minnesota Legislature (SF 2090) would appropriate $1.5 million so the Minnesota Initiative Foundations that would help us continue to work within the 80 Greater Minnesota counties - 52.4 percent of children live in Greater Minnesota (Minnesota Kids Count 2016) - to align resources for quality early learning opportunities.

SMIF works with partners like the five other Minnesota Initiative Foundations, First Children's Finance, Child Care Aware of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Education, multiple task forces, local care providers and business leaders and elected representatives to bring these issues to light and start working for collaborative, creative solutions. SMIF's Quality Child Care Program has already worked with hundreds of providers across 13 counties in our 20-county region to get them on a path to quality through the state's Parent Aware rating system.

SMIF's Early Childhood Initiatives are another approach, underscoring the need for many voices to be at the table, from educators to providers to families to the business community. Our Vice President of Early Childhood, Rae Jean Hansen, is on the Minnesota Committee of the National Academy of Sciences to lend a national perspective to SMIF's work in rural Minnesota, as well as the Start Early Funders Network. These conversations inform the needs and SMIF's response.

As early childhood education bills go forward in the State House and Senate, I ask elected officials to make sure that similarly, all voices are at the table. We certainly have room for growth, and the State-level is a good place to push for a more equitable education agenda. Smart early education investments are vital to Minnesota's future success. 

As always, I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at or 507-455-3215.

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