A pot of money for early education

/ 25 January 2015 / Shawna
Art Rolnick and Mike Meyers, Star Tribune Commentary, January 26, 2015
Our plan would use School Trust Lands as permanent funding for low-income preschool kids. 

Selling is not only about having a good product. It’s about convincing the buyer that the price is affordable.

“No money down.” “Buy now and save.” “Twenty-four easy payments (and 12 miserable ones.)”

So it is with selling the concept of teaching children born to poverty when they’re ages 3 and 4. Early intervention not only improves their chances of success in elementary school, but in high school and well into adulthood.

Study after study — and trial after trial — prove that early-childhood education pays off. Kids learn more and are more likely to graduate and stay out of trouble. In the short run and long run, society saves both money and sorrow. Indeed, these studies show that the annual rate of return on investing in early leaning, for our most vulnerable children, can be as high as 16 percent.

These kids start life with the disadvantage of low incomes and parents who often have not finished school themselves. But experience shows that these youngsters have the ability to succeed — if they’re given the chance.

The biggest hurdle: finding the money to pay for schooling for at-risk children years before they see the inside of a K-12 classroom.

Fortunately, a strategy is taking shape to use and leverage existing funds — eventually to reach $150 million a year. These are funds that would help provide flexible early-learning scholarships to the 20,000 children living in poverty in Minnesota. (The Minnesota Early Learning Foundation — investing $20 million in private funds — already has shown how successful early-learning scholarships can be when used in high-quality programs.)

And the best part: The plan involves no increase in taxes or major shifts in public school spending. The tactic would be as close to “free money” as it gets in education.

The trick will be to convince the Minnesota Legislature to endorse this blueprint for making the state a model for teaching preschool children.

A pot of money, known as the School Trust Lands Funds — likely to grow substantially in the next several years — could be the key. In the 19th century, the federal government gave Minnesota thousands of acres earmarked for a special purpose. Revenues from use of the land were to be used for education.

The school trust lands, concentrated in the northeastern corner of the state, already generate an average of $24 million annually to finance schools. The money comes from leases for a wide variety of land uses, from timber and farming to recreation and mining.

This cash trove soon may be worth millions more per year. Royalties on new mines yielding copper and nickel could add hundreds of millions of dollars to the school trust fund in decades to come.

This stream of cash, along with federal and private grants, could be combined to create an endowment of $1.5 billion to $2 billion to be used exclusively for children 3 and 4 to prepare them for K-12 classes.

An endowment has many virtues over raising taxes. Taxes raised one year could be cut the next. An endowment promises a steady source of money, a permanent commitment to lend a hand to children most in need that frees these programs from the perpetual budget battles that are part of the state political process.

A permanent commitment also provides the financial incentive for early-education providers, both private and public, to invest in a critical need: more early-learning infrastructure.

Finally, a permanent commitment, ensuring that all Minnesota children will have the opportunity to succeed and become productive workers, sends a message to the business community that our state will continue to have one of the most qualified workforces in the county.

We do not think the state of Minnesota could make a better economic development investment.

To be sure, K-12 administrators, school boards and teachers could be expected to lay claim exclusively to every dollar generated from the School Trust Lands Fund. After all, their schools have been beneficiaries of the fund for more than a century.

But traditional schools also would be the beneficiaries of expanding education to younger children.

Early-childhood education produces demonstrated improvements in student performance — and substantial savings. Fewer children would need special education, fewer students would need to be retained a grade, fewer children would have behavior problems — and our teachers would have more of their valuable time devoted to teaching.

It follows that improving the lot of children who aren’t prepared would also reward students who are ready. When a handful of children misbehave or can’t keep up with lessons, the attention of everyone in the classroom is diverted and momentum is lost.

In other words, investing the revenue from the School Trust Lands Fund in early-learning scholarships would generate savings to K-12 that more than offset the initial loss of school funding. The need to help children from families living in poverty is urgent — both for their futures and the future of Minnesota.

 

Art Rolnick is senior fellow and co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Mike Meyers, a former Star Tribune business reporter, is a writer in Minneapolis.