The Minnesota Senate Education Committee met Tuesday morning to hear presentations about Early Learning Scholarships. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) presented its report to the committee.
The Early Learning Scholarship program, serving children ages 3-5, began as a pilot project in 2011 with $2 million dollars. In 2013, the program allocated $23 million, the maximum scholarship was $5,000 and it was available in 44 counties. Today, scholarships are available statewide and the maximum award has increased to $7,500 for approximately $44 million in expenditures. It is estimated that the fiscal year 2016 will serve 5,700 children — approximately 11 percent of those eligible in Minnesota.
During the committee meeting, there were many questions regarding the Parent Aware Four Star Rating System and the delivery system for the scholarships. Pathway I awards scholarships directly to families who meet eligibility requirements. Scholarships are available to all Parent Aware Star Rating levels. Pathway II awards funds directly to a designated Four Star Rating Parent Aware program.
Sen. Terri Bonoff co-authored one of the first bills with former Sen. Tarryl Clark, a bill that was carried in Health and Human Services. In the pilot, the Department of Human Services (DHS) sent letters to families telling them they qualified and had $4,000 to use at a Four Star Rating facility. There was no application process and there was 100 percent participation in the four pilots according to Bonoff.
Bonoff has concern over the application process. “If we know these are at-risk families living in poverty, what are we trying to weed out in an application process?” Bonoff said.
Bonoff asked her school districts who is using scholarships. Four families are using them in Hopkins and just a handful more are using them in Robbinsdale Area.
MDE’s Charlene Briner said as a statewide program reaching many families in poverty, there are only so many scholarships to go around. Sen. Greg Clausen stated he knew of only 12 families receiving Pathway I scholarships in Dakota County. He asked for a report with specific Pathway I information. Sandy Myers, Early Learning Scholarship coordinator, said a report with detailed Pathway I information will be forthcoming.
Sen. John Hoffman raised the issue of how barriers for our most at-risk youth can be removed ensuring collaboration between departments in the state. The conclusion of the presentation was all children clearly benefit from high-quality early childhood programs and scholarships are an avenue to help families access programs. There is still work to be done in closing the gap between families of means and those in living in poverty.
MinneMinds is a statewide consortium aligning efforts to support the state’s neediest learners. Mary Metelak from White Earth was one of MinneMinds presenters. She discussed the importance of scholarships in greater Minnesota. White Earth Nation was a transformation zone. Seventy percent of the available scholarships went to children of single parents or grandparents raising children. Fifty percent went to children under 3 years old — providing stability and allowing a families to work, obtain transportation and rely less on assistance.
The final presenter was Wendy Webster, director of community services at the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District. She testified how Pathway II scholarships have allowed her district to expand programs, thus eliminating waiting lists as well as enhancing programs by the ability to increase the number of high-needs students and the staff to support them in the classroom.
Keep an eye on how early learning scholarships impact the discussion on universal pre-K this session. Click here to watch all or a portion of Tuesday’s Senate Education Committee meeting.