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Insight Now: April 22, 2011 Archive

Should the state rate the quality of early childhood programs? (Wrap-up of 4/18-4/22 online debate)

Posted at 9:31 AM on April 22, 2011 by Michael Caputo

Some policy leaders say if you want to improve the slipping U.S. educational system, you get to the kids early and get them ready to learn.

Pre-K preparation will boost student success in the later years, goes the theory. Minnesota has had no greater proponent for this than former state Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick, who calls investing in early childhood learning a good "return on investment."

This underpins the drive in Minnesota to create a statewide system that rates childcare and early childhood programs on how they prepare kids for learning.

But this ambition has met with skepticism over the years.

In 2006, then Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a $1 million grant to develop a child care rating system, saying the standards used didn't emphasize kindergarten readiness very well.

In stepped a consortium of businesses, non-profit organizations and education policy wonks. The group - the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation - raised $20 million to pilot a rating program, called Parent Aware. With that experience in hand, the group returned to the state legislature and called again for the state to adopt a Minnesota-wide early childhood rating system.

The effort has again met with resistence.

MPR's Insight Now devoted a week to debate the merits of a state-run rating system for early childhood programs.

We invited two people to wrestle with this assertion:
Minnesota should rate the quality of early childhood programs:

Pro: Todd Otis - Ready 4 K President and former member of the Minnesota House of Representatives.
Con: Dr. Karen Effrem - Education Liberty Watch President and a pediatrician.

Click here for links to their full opening remarks, rebuttals and closing statements.

But this debate included many more voices: Those from MPR's Public Insight Network and others connected to the issue. Here's a bit of what we learned...

How many kids are really unprepared?

That answer is all in how the numbers are interpreted.

Otis said a primary need for the rating program is to "decrease the number of Minnesota children who arrive at Kindergarten unprepared." He, and other proponents said a 2009 state education assessment showed that nearly half of the children surveyed, who were entering kindergarten, weren't ready.

This "half unprepared for kindergarten" statement was a chief concern for others in the debate, including Duane Benson, a former Republican state lawmakers and current executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation.

But Dr. Effrem said the interpretation of those results aren't quite so clear. The study says about 10 percent of children were "not yet" ready for kindergarten... about 40 percent were defined as "in process" of being ready ... and about 50 percent were deemed "proficient. Effrem says looking at that as half being unprepared for kindergarten is "taking the 'glass half empty' approach that children who are still 'in process' are going to fail in school."

Here's former Education Commissioner Alice Seagren's view on a similar study that showed similar results.

The program costs money, but should take from existing resources

At the start of the conversation, we heard the program wouldn't cost new money. Benson, who took an active role in our debate, priced the program at between $6 million and $7 million, and that the amount would reduce over time. But the foundation recommends the state to divert state and federal money.

The diversion of money sparked conversation from a few in child care who worried that it meant taking from others sources that would aid child care providers.

Proponents said the cost "is miniscule", especially when compared to the cost of remedial education.

And who cares about cost - we'll finally make government accountable

Otis and other supporters said the rating program would force providers who got state money for early learning to be accountable... it would make the state "good stewards of our tax dollars." And "why shouldn't those childcare programs have to prove how good they are", asked one child care provider.

Yes, but the child care providers need help

Put yourself in the place of the child care provider, says one who does the job for a living:

"Child-care center directors' median annual pay is only $34,233, according to Payscale.com, and child-care workers themselves make only $23,437, barely exceeding the federal poverty threshold for a family of four."
Now, she continues, you want them to "be a pre-K teacher, who feeds 6 to 8 bottles and changes an average of 20 diapers per day in a group of 10 kids."

The full story of one woman (a former day care provider) who has compromised on her child care choice because of cost - shows the flipside of poorly-paid child care providers ... it creates inadequate choices for working parents. To her, a rating system for kindergarten readiness is just beside the point.

Another member of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation team, Laurie Davis, said the the pilot program provided financial aid to those who got a lower early childhood rating. The program identified the problems in a provider's program and spends money wisely. In fact, said another child care executive, the access to resources is critical.

Just how voluntary is this program?

Dr. Effrem said that this promise of state funding for program improvements negates another sales pitch for the early childhood rating system: That it is voluntary. Providers would have to opt in, she figured, to get state financial help.

That's where skeptics think this rating system is a creeping government takeover of early childhood programs.

Proponents say the fact that only 14 percent of child care programs in the pilot project opted to be rated proves it is voluntary. And, they add,
"there are no universal mandates. There are no punishments...That's hardly a traditional regulatory model."

Your views?

So you've got a flavor for the debate. We want you to join in as well. The link below gets you into the full thread of the conversation. Below that, if you're interested, you will find the comments of the two main debaters, Todd Otis and Karen Effrem.

THE DEBATE IN FULL - (scroll to the bottom to contribute)

Monday: Opening Statements

Tuesday: Rebuttals

Wednesday: Rebuttals

Thursday: Closing Statements

April 2011
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