Education leaders talk disparities

Minnesota’s achievement gap needs lawmakers’ attention to be narrowed, advocates say.

Logan Wroge

State and school leaders agree that curbing Minnesota’s achievement gap, or the differences in educational results between white students and students of color, begins with early childhood development.

Advocates say there is more the state Legislature can do to narrow the disparities and that the recent elimination of a legislative committee designated to address youth education could potentially be a step backward.

“The ones being most immediately impacted on an individual level are families who are in the direst straits,” said Megan Gunnar, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. “However, the sustainability of our state is being impacted in the long run by not addressing the needs of those individuals.”

But amid the concerns, the removed committee’s responsibilities are planned to be dispersed elsewhere throughout the Capitol, and state leaders say they plan to continue the push forward in attempting to close the gap.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said the decision to cut the committee — the Minnesota House of Representatives’ Early Childhood and Youth Development Policy — doesn’t diminish the importance of early childhood education in legislative policy work.

Loon said the Education Finance Committee, which she will chair next session, and the Education Innovation Policy Committee will take on the dropped committee’s responsibilities.

“I’m incredibly committed to the importance of providing quality early childhood [education] for the youngest of Minnesota’s learners,” she said.

Marie Lister instructs 3- and 4-year-olds in afternoon preschool classes at the University’s Shirley G. Moore Lab School. She said she worries the state’s needs for early childhood development will receive less attention and “fall through the cracks” now that the committee is eliminated.

About 85 percent of white Minnesota high school students graduated last year, compared with just 49 percent of American Indian students, for example.

“Early childhood development is extremely important for the achievement gap,” said Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the early childhood committee.

Loon and Mullery both agree that the state Legislature needs to consider solutions to closing the achievement gap.

A University study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Wednesday suggests children who attend preschool longer are more likely to succeed in school.

Full-time preschool students are more prepared for school and less likely to miss class compared to children going to preschool part time, according to the study.

Scores in socioemotional development, language, math and physical health were higher among kids attending preschool full time, the study found.

“The whole economic future of Minnesota is dependent on bringing up kids in the best possible manner,” Mullery said.

One of the biggest changes to early childhood policy in recent years has been the implementation of Minnesota’s Early Learning Scholarships Program.

Loon said she was one of the first lawmakers to back the program years ago.

Slightly more than $20 million is available in scholarships to families applying to the program. Each eligible child can receive up to $5,000 a year, allowing them to attend early childhood education programs.

Gunnar said focusing on education early can prevent problems later in life. Health issues and criminal behavior are a product of early development, she said.

“If what we have to do is point out that putting money into early childhood education saves money on building prisons,” Lister said, “then we can make that connection for people.”