Minnesota lawmakers of both parties agree on early education scholarships, so let’s get it done | Opinion

January 26, 2021 6:00 am

Minnesota lawmekers can’t agree on much, but they agree on early learning scholarships. Photo by Ariel Skelley/Getty Images.

During the 2020 session of the Minnesota Legislature, something very unusual was happening.  

The Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled House made early child care and learning a signature issue — their House File 1 was literally the first bill in the hopper. 

At the same time, key members of the GOP-controlled Senate expressed support for a centerpiece of that proposal, early learning scholarships.

Think about that. Bipartisan, bicameral agreement for a social program. On scholarships, DFL House Speaker Melissa Hortman, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, Rep Dave Pinto and Sen. Melisa Franzen were aligned with GOP Sens. Carla Nelson, Eric Pratt, Gary Dahms and Rep. Kurt Daudt. During these polarized times, that just doesn’t happen much, if at all.

A broad legislative coalition understood that we must address the roots of Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps and early learning opportunity gaps. They agreed that we could no longer ignore the 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age five who for years haven’t been able to access the high-quality early learning programs they need to get ready for school.  

Last year, the questions around expanding early learning were more about “how much to expand,” as opposed to “whether to expand.”  We truly seemed on the verge of making a historic investment in Minnesota’s most vulnerable children.

Then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed for those kids. First came the worst pandemic in a century, followed closely by perhaps the most intense social unrest in Minnesota history. Both issues cried out for action, so the Legislature understandably shifted its focus to pandemic relief and police reform.  

When the legislative world was turned upside down, however, the needs of those left-behind children didn’t go away. We ignore them at our collective peril. After all, if we don’t help our most vulnerable children get ready for school, they won’t be the only ones who suffer. Our communities, taxpayers and economy will all suffer as well. 

I’m very aware that this is a challenging year to address this problem. We have divided government, a struggling economy and a long list of significant needs. But an investment in early learning scholarships is a perfect fit for these times.  

Scholarships are uniquely suited to this time of divided government. Scholarships are one of the very few areas of substantial policy common ground between Republicans and Democrats, and between the Senate and the House.  

When it comes to Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps, and the early learning opportunity gaps at their roots, what was true pre-pandemic remains true during the pandemic and post-pandemic. We have a huge crisis on our hands, and scholarships offer the bipartisan path forward to address that crisis. So let’s put last year’s broad bipartisan, bicameral coalition back together and seize that rare common ground for our most vulnerable children.

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Ericca Maas
Ericca Maas

Ericca Maas is the executive director of Close Gaps by 5, a non-profit championing the use of targeted early education to close Minnesota's worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps by age 5.