Neal St. Anthony
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At the New Horizon Academy in north Minneapolis, nearly 200 infants to preschoolers get up to 12 hours of daily learning, including supervised play, nutrition, field trips and more throughout the year.

The 35 licensed staffers, who make $12 to $25-plus an hour, plus tuition reimbursement for classes and early-learning accreditation, are mostly black, reflecting the diversity of 90 percent of the kids who also hail disproportionately from working-poor families.

The cost is $300 to $400 per week for this four-star Parent Aware quality-rated preschool. That rating system was developed by early-age educators to help preschools work with parents to get kids ready for kindergarten.

More than 90 percent of the families make less than $44,000 a year (a family of four) and qualify for state-paid Parent Aware scholarships of about $7,500 annually.

New Horizon also provides assistance to needy families and connects them with public and private grant programs.

“There are still long waiting lists of low-income families not getting scholarships,” said CEO Chad Dunkley of New Horizon, which was started nearly 50 years ago by his mother, a former teacher, who was concerned that there were too many kids not ready for school.

And we are still not making enough progress.

Despite about $70 million annually in state funding for schools, nonprofit and private day cares that are Parent Aware rated, at least 40 percent of Minnesota kids still are not ready for kindergarten.

About 15 years ago, a business coalition formed after alarming research by Art Rolnick, then research director at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, and colleagues concluded that more than half of Minnesota kids, disproportionately lower-income and minorities, were not getting the brain development they needed to be ready for kindergarten.

They concluded that getting kids ready for school was the best single investment Minnesota taxpayers could make. Kids who succeed in school, according to myriad studies, are less likely to drop out, get in trouble with the law, get pregnant as teenagers and otherwise disproportionately tap public programs instead of graduating high school, ready to be trained for employment or postsecondary education and economically self-sufficient taxpayers.

A legislative fight has diluted additional funding. It pits private and nonprofit providers and their supporters vs. the education lobby that wants to institutionalize “universal preschool,” a few hours a day for 3- and 4-year-olds in public grade schools across the state.

“Our scholarships mean five days a week, eight hours a day or more, and the parents can go to work or school ... and let’s start by covering the most at-risk kids,” Rolnick, a now-retired Minneapolis Fed researcher who continues to champion early learning, said earlier this year. “The middle- and upper-class families already can choose from great programs in their communities.”

Gov. Mark Dayton split about $140 million over the past two years between the private-preschool industry and public school establishment. In fact, some day care-preschools operate under arrangements with school districts. That’s great. I still think the targeted, all-day, family-embracing approach through neighborhood-based programs is the best, most-economical way to go for preschoolers.

The business-funded lobby now known as Close Gaps by 5 spent $20 million-plus on pilot programs, scholarships and developing the Parent Aware rating system with early-childhood experts from 2006 to 2011. The idea was to beef up the existing day care-preschool providers to cover unmet need.

There seems to be plenty of money.

The Minnesota legislative auditor, James Nobles, reported earlier this year that in 2016, the state spent nearly $500 million on early-learning programs and services, including $165 million on early-learning scholarships and child-care assistance for low-income families. This occurred through 42 different programs and several funding streams that the report found “complex, fragmented” and somewhat unaccountable.

Meanwhile, an estimated 35,000 kids under 5 still aren’t able to afford or access early-learning programs in their urban and rural communities.

“The only things that seem to connect [myriad programs and funding schemes] are good intentions and a sincere hope that they are working effectively,” Nobles told legislators last spring. “Good intentions and hope are very important, but they are not enough.”

Last year, Rep. Jenifer Loon, a Republican, and Rep. Paul Thissen, a DFLer, resolved with other legislators to develop a bill that would streamline and make one source in state government responsible for coordinating early-education funding and results. This bipartisan step was encouraging and should be continued, even with Thissen’s recent appointment to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Others need to step up in a common-sense, bipartisan approach to address the issue with enabling legislation in the next session.

We should listen carefully to the competing gubernatorial candidates this fall.

A school-based setting is fine, as long it provides full day care that supports working-class parents. But universal pre-K in every district is overkill and likely far more expensive than the targeted scholarship approach through licensed and accredited day-care sites.

“Universal pre-K doesn’t cover the child care issue for most working families,” Dunkley said.

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.