Minnesota Business Leaders Call for Sweeping Early Learning Reforms

Ratings System, Tax Incentives, Direct Scholarships Needed To Head Off Crisis

Dec 08, 2010, 11:55 ET from Minnesota Early Learning Foundation

ST. PAUL, Minn., Dec. 8, 2010 /PRNewswire/ -- The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) Board of Directors today called on the Minnesota Legislature to reform the state's childcare system so that it is more focused on preparing young children for kindergarten.

"About half of Minnesota's children aren't ready for kindergarten, and too many never catch up," said Michael Fiterman, CEO of Liberty Diversified International.  "We have to do a much better job those first five years, when up to 90% of brain development occurs."

Over the last five years, MELF has used about $20 million of non-governmental money studying the current childcare system and evaluating alternative approaches for preparing children for kindergarten.  Their findings informed today's recommendations.

Parent Aware Ratings

The centerpiece of MELF's recommendations is a voluntary statewide rating system to inform parents about school readiness quality, the Parent Aware Ratings.  The Ratings are a Consumer Reports-like rating system focused on school readiness best practices.  Depending on how many best practices are being used, a childcare provider is given between a one- to four-star rating.

"The Parent Aware Ratings empower parents shopping for childcare to demand school readiness quality," said Bradbury H. Anderson, retired Vice Chairman of Best Buy Co., Inc., and Chair of the MELF Board.  "When parents and government programs start insisting on quality, childcare providers will supply it."

Incentives To Reward School Readiness Quality

MELF also called for incentives to reward providers and citizens supporting high quality early learning:  1) Early Learning Scholarships to give low-income families access to high quality programs; 2) Train and Retain Tax Credits to promote better preparation, stability and income for early childhood professionals; and 3) Early Learners Hero Tax Credits to encourage private donations to improve program quality and expand access.

"Rather than a regulatory model of quality improvement, we recommend a reward model," said Michael Ciresi, Partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi.

In contrast to the current government program model for delivering childcare assistance, MELF recommends a more flexible, streamlined and empowering direct scholarship model.

"We need to streamline the system for the low-income parents who can't access high quality early education," said Art Rolnick, an economist formerly of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and current Co-Director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota.

Ratings Promotion Board

Finally, MELF recommends that the private sector form a non-governmental Parent Aware Promotion Board to oversee effective ratings, and market the ratings to parents.

"We're going to market these Ratings to parents, so market demand will drive quality improvement," said Kendall J. Powell, CEO and Chairman of the Board at General Mills.

"This oversight board will ensure that the Ratings remain a strong shopping tool for parents, and an accountability tool for taxpayers," said Robbin Johnson, President of the Cargill Foundation.  

Rolnick has found that expanding access to high quality early childhood education can return as much as $16 to society for every $1 invested.  But he stresses that simply spending more on the current system is not the answer.

"Our research found that the early learning environments must be high quality to achieve those kinds of returns," said Rolnick.  "Therefore, quality improvement must be the first step."

MELF will be working with Minnesota's new Governor and Legislature to enact the reforms this year.

"We know how to fix this, and we have to act now to start that process," said Douglas M. Baker, Jr., Chairman CEO and President, Ecolab, Inc.

MELF background is available at www.melf.us.

SOURCE Minnesota Early Learning Foundation