Give parents of littlest learners more choices, save our child care industry while we’re at it | Opinion

May 11, 2021 6:00 am

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The Legislature is on the verge helping our most vulnerable children and the pandemic-devastated child care sector — investing in early learning scholarships.  

The House wants to give the Minnesota Commissioner of Education (MDE) the authority to spend as much as $40 million more on something called Pathway II early learning scholarships. The Minnesota Senate is allocating $146 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding for the original Pathway I early learning scholarship model.

There’s a critical difference between Pathway I and Pathway II. 

It sounds like bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. I get it. I’m an early educator, not a policy wonk. But that one numeral after the word “pathway” makes all the difference for disadvantaged, low-income children and child care providers. 

Here’s why:  

With the original Early Learning Scholarship model Pathway I, parents are in the driver’s seat. Parents with these scholarships are empowered to choose from a variety of quality “Parent Aware”-rated programs in homes, schools, centers, nonprofits or churches.  

All of those programs have an equal opportunity to serve those families. And if the parents ever need to change programs, the Pathway I scholarship is portable, meaning the parent can take their scholarship to any quality program they want, without losing eligibility or having to do any additional paperwork. Pathway I scholarships are flexible, fair and portable.

Pathway II was created by the Minnesota Department of Education and it bears no resemblance to this original model. Unlike the original flexible and portable model that has proven effective, with the rigid Pathway II model parents don’t get to choose from an array of different kinds of programs in their area. 

Instead, a few officials at MDE control funding distribution. MDE distributes funding through an elaborate “request for proposals” funding process that is so involved and complex that it effectively has become an earmark for large institutions that have the resources to pay professional grant writers like school districts and a few of the largest child care centers.  

As a result, 66% of the Pathway II funding goes to school-based programs, 17% goes to centers, and just 0.4% goes to any of Minnesota’s 1,142 licensed, Parent Aware-rated family child care providers, according to a Department of Education report on the scholarships. In contrast, when parents with a Pathway I scholarship are empowered to make their own choice, only 12% choose school-based programs.

There are very valid reasons why low-income parents choose quality programs like ours, when they are allowed to do so. Many parents need a program closer to their home, transit stop or job. Many parents work full-time, so a school-based program that has part-time hours and is closed in the summer doesn’t work for them.  

Many parents have more than one child under age five, and need a single drop-off and pick-up, which isn’t possible with school-based programs that don’t serve babies and toddlers. Many families want a provider familiar with their culture, and home-based providers come from many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds that are under-represented in school-based programs. Many parents prefer the smaller settings and nurturing approach that quality home-based programs like ours offer.  

The Pathway II approach is also out of step with national trends. The Biden Administration has said that quality home-based programs should be a choice available to parents of preschoolers. Pathway I scholarships are the only Minnesota funding stream for preschool-aged education that offers that option to families.

At a time when we have a serious shortage in child care, Minnesotans need all hands on deck to serve children who need care, including the 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age five who currently can’t access quality early learning programs. Pathway I gives Minnesota an inclusive all hands on deck strategy, but the rigid Pathway II model doesn’t.

There’s also the critically important issue of “portability.” When a parent with a child in Pathway II program changes jobs or homes, and needs to change child care programs, their child can get cut off from their scholarship funding. Consequently, the child loses their learning and care continuity, often permanently because there are long waiting list for scholarships and other types of help. Children don’t get cut off from learning and care with the portable Pathway I model, but they do with the Pathway II approach.

There’s also the issue of targeting the most at-risk children. State law identifies the following children as its top priorities for assistance: Children experiencing homelessness, in foster care, in the child protection system and with teen parents. Those children are Minnesota’s top priority because they’re the most at-risk of not being prepared for school and experiencing other difficulties.  

Flexible, portable Pathway I scholarships work well for those children, as evidenced by the fact that 55% of Pathway I funding is going to them. Meanwhile, only 8% of Pathway II funding is going to those top priority children. 

Finally, leaders also talk a lot about the critical need to do better serving children early in life, when their brains are rapidly developing and learning gaps are just beginning to open. But our leaders’ words aren’t consistent with their actions. After all, 40% of Pathway I funding goes to infants and toddlers, while only 7% of Pathway II funding goes to our littlest learners. Yet House leaders want to expand Pathway II at the expense of Pathway I?

MDE created Pathway II at a time when it claimed it was concerned there weren’t enough Parent Aware-rated programs to meet parents’ needs. At the time, MDE leadership promised Pathway II would be a temporary program.  Back then, there were 529 rated programs. Eight years later, there are 2,888 rated programs.  If there ever was a need for Pathway II, the need now is long gone.  

Because school districts and teacher unions are very powerful at the State Capitol, they have several funding streams that are dedicated exclusively to them — School Readiness, School Readiness Plus, and Voluntary Pre-k. I am not calling for the elimination of their exclusive funding streams, though they’re inequitable. All I ask is that we have an equal opportunity to compete with school-based programs for parents using early learning scholarships. 

So, if the early education debate is really about helping the most vulnerable children and the devastated child care sector, and not about earmarking yet another funding stream for powerful special interests, the Legislature and governor should eliminate the Pathway II model and redistribute the funding to the original Pathway I scholarship model.  If lawmakers won’t eliminate Pathway II, they should at least stop diverting new money to this problematic approach.

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Cyndi Cunningham
Cyndi Cunningham

Cyndi Cunningham is an early educator who operates Growing Wings, LLC, a licensed Parent Aware-rated licensed family child care program in St. Paul. She is the public policy chair of the Minnesota Child Care Provider Information Network, which supports, promotes and strengthens the profession of licensed family child care.