Minnesota Senate Hears Early Learning Scholarships Report
The Minnesota Senate Education Committee heard an overview of the recently released Minnesota Department of Education Early Learning Scholarships Report at a February 2 hearing. The Committee heard from experts at the Minnesota Department of Education as well as from early learning advocates including the Minnesota Community Education Association.
Background of the Early Learning Scholarship Program:
Scholarships were first established in 2011 when the Legislature allocated $2 million for a pilot program in 10 communities. In 2012, the state received additional funding through the Race to the Top Early Learning Scholarship Program. In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature enacted the Early Learning Scholarship program. Goals of the program include providing children with high needs access to high-quality early learning settings to improve school readiness in Minnesota and create an infrastructure for growing and sustaining a comprehensive early learning system. Scholarships are targeted at families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level to use in a high quality (as defined by Parent Aware) care or education program. In addition, there is a focus to reach diverse and high-risk families including homeless families. Scholarships are divided into two pathways: Pathway I is awarded to families through a Regional Scholarship Administrator and Pathway II is awarded to children through a Four-Star Parent Aware rated early childhood site. Table 1 below, highlights the expansion of the program in recent years as outlined in the hearing presentation with data from the Minnesota Department of Education.
Early Learning Scholarships Report
The Early Learning Scholarship Report was mandated by the legislature and required the commissioner of education to report to the legislature by January 15, 2016 on scholarship amounts, efficiency and effectiveness of the administration and the impact on Kindergarten readiness.
Notable Information, Analysis and Recommendations:
- The program is reaching eligible children from diverse families.
- Families are attending their program of choice and find programs quickly. 95 percent of parents indicated that their children are attending the program of their choice.
- One-third of parents need assistance from their provider to complete their application.
- Scholarship Amount: while the current maximum scholarship amount of $7,500 does not always cover the full cost of care, the scholarship is often layered with other early childhood funding mechanisms such as the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP). Only 13 percent of children used the full amount of the scholarship. Administrators and programs are able to award additional scholarships with the unspent scholarship amounts.
- In terms of academic growth, all children attending Parent Aware programs had growth through the pre-Kindergarten year but the higher rated program participants exceeded measures in their early literacy skills. It can be concluded that what matters in terms of school readiness and academic growth is the care or educational program quality rating, not whether a Pathway I or II type scholarship was used. The higher rated programs showed gains in more areas.
- The Department recommends prioritizing scholarships for children with the greatest risk factors such as children who are homeless or in foster care.
Additional recommendations noted opportunities to improve outreach to applicants, a continuing need to simplify the application and improvements in the logistical operations of the scholarships including online applications, invoicing and scholarship renewals. Because the report and evaluation was conducted in 2014, the Minnesota Department of Education has noted that some of the concerns have already been addressed or changes implemented. Most notable has been the Department’s work on the application.
Wendy Webster, Director of Community Services for the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District, offered testimony on behalf of the Minnesota Community Education Association. Webster highlighted the importance of ensuring that children have access to high-quality early learning programs in a mixed delivery format and noted that Pathway II scholarships allow schools to meet the needs of parents and children.
The AMSD legislative platform stresses that preschool education is a critical educational strategy to close the unacceptable opportunity and achievement gaps that exist in Minnesota. AMSD supports a mixed delivery system of early learning scholarships and calls on legislators and the Governor to:
- Provide funding needed to ensure prekindergarten programs have essential components including licensed teachers, support staff, transportation and classroom space;
- Allow school districts the flexibility to design the early learning programs that best meets the needs of their students and families and;
- Increase and expand the allowable uses of the building lease levy to include remodeling of existing space and building additions for instructional space to ensure school districts have sufficient classrooms.
The Minnesota Senate Education Committee will hold several interim hearings before session begins on March 8, 2016. For the list of upcoming hearings, visit the Senate Education Committee Schedule.