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Early Childhood Funding Has Degraded Since 2003

June 30, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Decades-long research from multiple sources has proven that children who receive early childhood education perform much better academically and professionally over their lifetimes.  Children who attend an early childhood education program are more likely to proceed through school at grade level, attend college or technical school, earn more money and spend less time on welfare and in the legal system. Early childhood education can realize a return on investment of as much as $16 for every dollar spent.

Despite these research results, Minnesota's funding for early childhood programs has been inadequate and inconsistent.  Wider access to early education would result in more children entering kindergarten grade ready and less likely to fall behind in later years, reducing the need for special education.  In a survey conducted each year by the Minnesota Department of Education, kindergarten teachers say only 52 percent of incoming kindergartners demonstrate proficient knowledge, skills, and behavior to be successful at that grade level.

Serious funding problems stand in our children's way.  All programs were cut by state policymakers after 2003, and didn't see their funding renewed until 2008. This means these important programs are running today at the same funding level they received in 2003 without any increase for inflation - an ultimate cut of between 7 percent and 19 percent.

Early Childhood Family Education, one of Minnesota's most popular and effective early childhood programs, works to provide parent education and opportunities for parent-child interaction. The program is open to children birth to kindergarten and their parents, expectant parents and relatives. Programs operate primarily in schools and by 2008, all school districts offered ECFE and 126,367 children and 145,246 parents were participating.

ECFE is funded through state aid and local levies up to the state-mandated entitlement of $22.1 million. Districts take the number of children age five or under as of September 1 and multiply that number by $120 to determine the amount of aid. Local property tax values are used to determine the local contribution. If there's enough in the local property tax base to cover the $120-per-child funding formula, then no state aid is sent to the district.  If local property tax values aren't enough to meet the $120-per-child formula, the state makes up the difference. This formula ensures that children across the state get equal access to ECFE.

However, the $120-per-child figure has fluctuated during recent economic crises. In 2003 and 2004, the aid was set at $120 per child.  In 2005 that figure was $96, in 2006 $104 and in 2007 $112. It returned to $120 in 2008 and 2009. Also, that $22.1 million figure has not been indexed for inflation, so the actual amount allocated for the program is about $18 million in FY 2009 dollars.

Another program, Head Start, improves school readiness and cognitive, social and emotional development of children from low-income families. Funds go to 35 Head Start community organization grantees in the state. Services include early education, health, nutrition, mental health and social services. In 2008, 17,779 children participated in Head Start.

Head Start is funded primarily by the federal government. In 2008, the federal government paid $84.8 million while $20.1 million came out of Minnesota's general fund. When adjusted for inflation, the state allotment for Head Start has dropped 7 percent between 2004 and 2008.

The School Readiness program was established in 1991 to help children from low income families prepare for kindergarten. The program, offered through a school district or group of districts, offers education through licensed early childhood teachers or licensed parent educators.

The state offers School Readiness at about $8 million per year distributed by the number of participating children. In 2008, 32,693 children participated. In 2003, the state providing $9.5 million for School Readiness, but now offers an inflation-adjusted $7.6 million, or a drop of 19 percent since 2003.

Early childhood education can also take place in a standard daycare. The Family, Friend and Neighbor Grant Program was established in 2007 to provide early literacy, healthy development and school readiness services to at-risk children in family, friend and neighbor child care settings. There are an estimated 150,000 households in Minnesota that provide family, friends or neighbor child care. The program is supported with $200,000 from the federal government and $368,252 from the state general fund.

The state pays $507,000 and the federal government pays $284,000 for Licensed Family Child Care, which sets standards for licensing family child care homes. This program governs licensure of providers of child care in residential settings, usually the provider's residence, for 14 or fewer children, for fewer than 24 hours per day.

For Minnesota to succeed in the 21st century, we need everyone to be working at the peak ability, and the only way we can achieve that goal is to begin educating students today. The most efficient education dollar spent is in early childhood education but the state's commitment to helping preschoolers prepare for kindergarten has been slipshod at best.

There is no political philosophy that can excuse this disconnect. Early childhood education provides proven return on investment of at least 16-1, yet these programs have seen revenues drop from between seven percent and 19 percent.

There is no excuse. As Minnesotans, we owe it to our children and ourselves to adequately fund early childhood education.

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