Special session should mark the beginning of the end for Minnesota’s achievement gap

/ 28 May 2015 / Shawna
MinnPost, Sarah Caruso and Jeffrey A. Hassan, May 28, 2015
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We are counting on our elected officials to put aside political disagreements to help Minnesota revive its education legacy.

Minnesota is on the verge of taking a big step toward closing the education achievement gap. However, with mere hours left in the session, leaders were within striking distance of a deal on an E-12 funding bill that would be a game-changer for Minnesota’s children and families.

While they weren’t able to cross the finish line during the regular session, we are now headed toward a special session to fund early learning and the K-12 system. There is strong bipartisan support to make dramatic investments in education that can transform our state for the better.

Some may call the need for a special session a failure – it isn’t. It is an opportunity for leaders to build on the foundation that was laid out during session and make Minnesota a beacon of early education excellence.

The special session will focus on the state’s most urgent issue – closing the achievement gap. For years, the philanthropic and business sectors have invested social and financial capital toward eradicating the gap on behalf of public good. Educators, advocates, economists and community groups have echoed the call to action to end disparities in educational outcomes between children of well-off families and low-income students.

A chance to build on initial investments

Past legislatures have made important initial investments in early learning, including boosting funding for public preschool through School Readiness, Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) and Early Learning Scholarships. Though a good first step, no one believed that it was enough to eliminate the achievement gap.

We have that chance today.

This special session should mark the beginning of the end for Minnesota’s achievement gap. However, we can only get there if our elected leaders continue to support a common bipartisan mission — expanding quality early learning opportunities.

Gov. Mark Dayton has made education his signature issue, not just this session, but during his entire time as governor. For that, Minnesotans of every political background should thank him. His proposal for universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds represents a bold vision that would benefit all of Minnesota’s families struggling with the high cost of early learning. However, school districts, child care providers, advocates and the Minnesota Early Learning Council support a different path to achieving the goal of increased access to early education.

This session, the House and Senate passed a bill providing an additional $400 million for the E-12 system, including $60 million for expanding targeted programs like parent-directed Early Learning Scholarships and flexible School Readiness. The fact that both parties support these critical investments should be celebrated. This broad consensus means that compromise and progress can and should be possible.

The path forward is clear.

Expand access for the most at-risk learners

Instead of relying on universal pre-k to be the silver bullet, let’s commit a substantial portion of the budget surplus into expanding access to pre-k for Minnesota’s most at-risk learners and build on what we’ve started. That means investing in early learning scholarships and School Readiness that will give the most vulnerable kids an opportunity for success.

The legacy of the 2015 session can be that divided leaders came together, put Minnesota’s children first and compromised to make an historic investment in quality early learning programs which helped to end the achievement gap. Or, it can be that political pride and brinksmanship won the day and the needs of our youngest learners got deferred.

We are counting on our elected officials to put aside political disagreements to help Minnesota revive its education legacy. Thousands of children and parents in every community across the state can’t afford to wait. Again.

Sarah Caruso is the president and chief executive officer of Greater Twin Cities United Way. Jeffrey A. Hassan is the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum.