Neal St. Anthony
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The Minnesota Legislature appears ready to pass a significant increase in early-learning scholarships with rare bipartisan support on behalf of needy Minnesota families whose kids aren't ready for kindergarten.

However, with only days to go in the session, it's unclear how big a bill will squeeze through the House and Senate and to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz.

The kids have important allies, ranging from the Minnesota Business Partnership of the state's 100 largest firms to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the Itasca Project, the Children's Defense Fund, the newly formed Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity and Close Gaps by 5, the early-education lobby.

About 35,000 Minnesota kids, disproportionately low income and minority, aren't ready for kindergarten. It is this group that drops out of school at a higher rate and, if making it to graduation, isn't as ready for jobs or college. That costs Minnesota billions annually in lost economic contribution.

Economic research, including from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, has found that quality preschool education can help close Minnesota's yawning racial-achievement gap in education and income.

Nearly 20 years ago, Art Rolnick, then research director of the Minneapolis Fed who is now retired but still active in the cause, determined that $1 invested in quality preschool for disadvantaged kids returns up to $16 to taxpayers.

"We need $415 million a year to fully service those 35,000 very vulnerable kids," said Ericca Maas, executive director of Close Gaps by 5. "The state puts in $70 million for scholarships every year. We are looking at a $1.6 billion state surplus estimated for fiscal 2022-23. And the state is getting $2.6 billion that's flexible funding under the federal American Rescue Plan Act earlier this year. The kids need the investment now. There's no excuse for not getting it done."

Close Gaps by 5 grew from research and millions in private funding of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, which offered scholarships and developed the Parent Aware accreditation system for preschools.

Advocates say it will cost $800 million over two years to ensure every Minnesota kid is ready for kindergarten, including parental engagement, through private day cares and school-based early-learning centers.

Minnesota employers say the No. 1 lament among working-class employees is affordable day care.

Preschoolers don't vote. And, despite the growing early-education support, there's stiff competition for funds, ranging from tax cuts to the K-12 education lobby, senior citizens and health care interests.

In March, Sen. Carla Nelson, a Republican from Rochester, and Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn, DFL-Eden Prairie, introduced respective bills that would spend $830 million over the next two fiscal years to eliminate the existing waiting list and expand eligibility to all toddlers at or below 185% of the federal property guidelines.

"I did have a little bit of sticker shock when I saw the price tag," Rep. Tony Jurgens, R-Cottage Grove, a cosponsor of the House bill, said several weeks ago. "I do think it's something we do need to take a look at."

The House and Senate have passed bills that would add $40 million and $146 million, respectively, over the next two years to the $140 million in existing biennial funding.

Walz, albeit supportive of more early-learning funding, hasn't shown his hand yet.

The state Department of Human Services earlier issued an opinion that federal funding can't be used for early-learning scholarships without significant statutory changes. The early-learning caucus disputes that, and it provided analysis and recent testimony in St. Paul from the national Early Learning Policy Group.

At worst, legislative negotiators believe, some of the federal funding can be used elsewhere, which should free some state funds for early learning. The bet here: Given the federal largesse available, the legislative negotiators and Walz will make progress toward full funding as the horse-trading intensifies before the scheduled adjournment on May 17.

"As we grow our economy out of the pandemic and address equity issues, improving quality child care and early learning for families will be more important than ever," supportive business lobbies wrote legislators on March 5. "Ensuring families have access to quality child care and early education programs helps address head-on the opportunity gaps that lead to education and racial disparities impacting our region's competitiveness.''

Duane Benson, an accomplished, humble man and quipster, was an NFL player, state senator, farmer and leader of the Minnesota Business Partnership who died in 2019. A curious lifelong learner, Benson concluded several years ago that his most important work was starting what is now Close Gaps by 5 and rallying business and legislative support around the value of preschool education.

It's time to do better in his memory and right by these kids and families.