Here at Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), we invest approximately $1.5 million annually into early childhood. Our mission is to help all children be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, and we achieve this by funding high-quality early education programs and projects across the southern Minnesota region.

This includes our grants of books (BookStart and READ), Young Explorer Computers, AmeriCorps LEAP members, early childhood Initiative coalitions, and incentive grants. This also includes The Quality Family Child Care Program - which came out of our 2012 One Big Thing Grant - that will help nearly 100 family childcare providers in Brown and Watonwan counties become Parent Aware rated.

At the Capitol, legislators are asking this question: "Which should we fund, all-day kindergarten (ADK) or pre-kindergarten early education?"

That strikes me as kind of like asking, "Which should we fund, fifth grade or sixth grade?" The answer seems obvious: Both.

Gov. Mark Dayton has struck a sensible balance in his budget by proposing resources for pre-K and ADK. Rather than falling into divisive debate, advocates for education should rally around the governor's approach.

Learning happens at a rapid rate, and each grade builds on another. Sixth grade builds on fifth grade - and kindergarten builds on preschool learning.

With up to 90 percent of brain development happening before kindergarten, the pre-K years are a critical time to have children in stimulating learning environments, but currently, Minnesota isn't doing well on the pre-K front. Almost half of Minnesota children are arriving in kindergarten behind, and we're seeing that too many who start behind never catch up. When they don't catch up, taxpayers pay the price through higher costs related to special education, social services, law enforcement, income supports, prisons, and more.

Strong return on investment

Economists Art Rolnick and Rob Grunewald have long studied the return on public investments. Specifically, they have found that every $1 invested in moving low-income children into high-quality early education produces $16 in societal benefits, such as reducing the need for future government expenses on the types of services mentioned earlier. Their conclusion: pre-K early education is arguably the single best public investment taxpayers can make.

Investing in pre-K is critically important for improving our K-12 system of education. We can get better results from our $7 billion annual investment in K-12 education if we first invest a tiny fraction - just $0.21 billion per year - in high-quality pre-K early education. With that relatively small increase in our investment, we could move more than 35,000
low-income Minnesota 3- and 4-year-olds off waiting lists and into high-quality pre-K early education.

Need requirement for high quality

To get the results we seek, we must insist, as does Gov. Dayton, that tax dollars only be invested in high-quality providers who are Parent Aware rated (meaning they are using the best practices for preparing children for kindergarten). A recent survey found that 76 percent of Minnesotans agree with this requirement.

So let's not pit pre-K against all day kindergarten. I agree with Gov. Dayton. We need investment in high-quality education at both the pre-K and kindergarten levels. Next month, we all have the opportunity to celebrate and advocate for early education.

How you can help

We invite you to celebrate the Week of Young Child, April 14 to 20, with us. The Week of the Young Child is an annual celebration sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). This year's theme is "Early Years Are Learning Years." (For more information about the Week of the Young Child and ways to participate, visit http://www.naeyc.org.)

The purpose of the Week of the Young Child is to focus public attention on the needs of young children and their families and to recognize the early childhood programs and services that meet those needs. An additional resource for Minnesota parents is the website isyourchildready.com, which helps parents determine if their children are ready for kindergarten.

Join us in celebrating the Week of the Young Child as we advocate for our state's youngest citizens.


Tim Penny is president/CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. Contact him at timp@smifoundation.org or (507) 455-3215.