Op-Ed: Little Learners, Big Responsibility

Posted in Blandin Foundation

Getting children ready to learn by the time they enter kindergarten is important. Some believe it is vital to solving the problems in our K-12 system. The people upon whom this task falls are the child’s parents. We should not lose sight of this as we look for ways that government and private philanthropy can help fill the gaps.

The School Readiness Funders Coalition is a group of foundations committed to a smart and comprehensive view of what is variously known as day care, child care, preschool, or early childhood education. It’s what happens between birth and the day a school bus picks up a child for the first time.

The coalition argues persuasively that this early-learning time, when the little person’s brain is developing so rapidly, is critical. Its study, Agenda to Achieve Learning Readiness by 2020, calls for government coordination of state and federal programs, regular assessment of children, an expansion of child-care rating systems and a gradual increase in state funds to make sure all families can afford high-quality programs.

The report, released last March and updated in November, states that “parents are the primary teacher and educator for their children,” and that the role of foundations and government should be to coordinate services “to support parents in this vital role.” Amen to that, and to the group’s recognition that the state’s financial condition does not allow for government to take on new funding commitments.

But the reality is that with so many double-earner and single-parent families, many preschool children need out-of-home care. Our scientific understanding of child development has come to acknowledge the importance of early learning on later learning. Making these early years count is wise parenting and wise public policy.

The U.S. Census bureau has estimated that there are about 420,000 children under the age of 6 in Minnesota. About $1.5 billion is spent each year on early-childhood programs, and $1.2 billion of that is spent by parents. The child care industry supports more than 28,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, according to a state report.

The coalition supports a recommendation that a single Cabinet-level agency, a kind of Early Learning Czar, be established to coordinate various programs. It seeks to set the goal of ensuring that every child is ready for kindergarten by the year 2020. It seeks to expand quality-rating systems, such as Parent Aware, to help parents find the best programs and to help the programs get better. And its report says Minnesota children, beginning at age 3, must be “assessed for progress toward school readiness” to ensure their future success. As to funding, it calls on philanthropic organizations to coordinate their support, and for government to eventually increase its spending by up to $290 million per year so that all children can participate.

Coordination and streamlining of existing programs makes sense, although Minnesota may not be ready for a separate cabinet agency. There may come a time when additional funding is called for. And we have long appreciated the “Parent Aware” model of rating child-care centers and helping them offer the latest, research-based programming.

But these efforts must be joined with a strong message that this is what being a parent is all about — both parents loving, nurturing and looking out for the beautiful little people they have produced. To the extent that social trends work against that, it is the social trend — such as too many uninvolved fathers, whatever the reasons — that should be addressed.

We always knew the early years of life were a fascinating time. Now we know this to be a new frontier of education. We thank all those who are focusing the attention of adults on the enormous capabilities of these little learners.

The Funders Coaltion strategy is available at http://www.readyforschoolmn.com/.

The Parent Aware rating system is available at www.parentawareratings.org.

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The preceding article was published in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press on February 8, 2011.

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