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Letter: Make our youngest citizens a priority in greater Minnesota

Last year, the Minnesota Legislature made a commitment to the education and welfare of our youngest children by providing funds for access to quality early childhood programs. This was particularly helpful for our rural areas, where nearly every community is facing the threat of a workforce shortfall and a growing shortage of early childhood care and education options.

We have heard some great success stories from Greater Minnesota of parents being able to enroll their children in quality Parent Aware-rated care and learning programs. A local child care provider recently shared one such story with us. When the father of three children in her care was unable to work, the mom quickly found that, as the sole breadwinner, her paycheck was eaten up entirely by child care costs. Thankfully, the family qualified for the Minnesota Department of Education’s early learning scholarships made possible through last year’s legislation. The children were able to stay with their current provider – who is active in the Parent Aware/Building Quality programs that offer quality early learning tools and training – and the mom had income to pay bills and provide for her family’s needs.

Unfortunately, many greater Minnesota families and communities aren’t experiencing this success because the current investment only meets nine percent of the state’s total needs. The Minnesota Department of Education has done its best to target available funds to areas with the most at-risk populations, but there are too many families still in need of support. There is simply not enough funds to go around.

At the start of the 2014 legislative session, we have been told to expect a package of bills that will use expected budget surplus dollars to support Greater Minnesota. To ensure our state meets its potential in the future, the Minnesota Legislature must continue to prioritize investment in early education and increase scholarship funding. The statewide MinneMinds coalition, of which West Central Initiative is a member, supports legislation introduced earlier this year to add $20 million funding for scholarships for 2015, and then double that funding every two years until all need is met throughout the state.

There will always be debates about the best way to move our regional economy forward, but investment in our youngest learners should not be up for discussion. We owe it to our kids – and to our economic future – to invest in their education from day one. It is a smart move for our region and for our state, and should be a top priority for our local legislators.