State must make early childhood investments a priority

KELLY DORAN

During a speech in Hong Kong near the end of his China trade mission late last year, Gov. Tim Pawlenty expressed his amazement at the “scope” of China’s rise to economic superpower status. Then, in an apparent moment of sober revelation, Pawlenty reportedly proclaimed that it is about time “for our country to get its rear in gear.”

It’s hard to imagine how Minnesota’s governor could be so seemingly blindsided by what business leaders and policy experts have been warning of throughout the past several years — the global economy is on the move, and in order to maintain our competitive edge and grow Minnesota’s economy, we need to have a vision for our future that includes investing in education like never before, in particular early childhood education.

If there is one direction in education toward which Minnesota should move, it is reforming our education system and ensuring every child in Minnesota has at least one year of education before entering kindergarten. Study after study has proven that early childhood education is an almost guaranteed way to ensure greater success later in life.

Whether our goal is to increase the graduation rate of our high school seniors, close the achievement gap between white students and students of color, or increase the number of our high school graduates who go on to earn a college degree, there is no greater investment we can make than in early childhood education. According to recent studies, investments in early childhood education can even lead to less crime and decreased welfare payments.

Leaders across the country are taking note. Take a drive down Interstate 35 to Iowa, where the governor and Legislature have dedicated more than $75 million for early childhood initiatives over two years. Head further south, and Arkansas’ Republican governor has passed two tax increases for such an investment, while two other conservative states — Oklahoma and Georgia — provide free state-paid preschool for every 4-year-old child.

Here at home, Art Rolnick of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, hardly a liberal think tank, touts investments in early childhood education and insists such spending offers the greatest return on investment available to government.

Yet, unfortunately, under Pawlenty’s administration, support for early childhood education initiatives like Head Start has been cut by many millions of dollars. And though early childhood education has both proven results and unparalleled returns, we now dedicate only 0.5 percent of our state budget toward this investment. If the CEO in the business world suggested investing such a minuscule amount in a proven high-rate-of-return investment, he or she would be fired.

In the meantime, as the governor and lawmakers gear up for the new year and new session, debates about whether to extend the school year and reorganize how we pay teachers have occupied our public discourse. And while these are fine debates worth having, we need to have a broader debate and ensure we are building the necessary foundation for our children to be successful and seize the opportunities of a global economy.

What the governor witnessed in China was a society that has a clear vision, is focused on its future, and has made purposeful and unprecedented investments in education infrastructure. China has more than doubled its number of college students in the past five years to 14 million, the most in the world. It is producing eight times as many graduate engineers as the U.S. Chinese government officials recently announced to business leaders around the world that the country will significantly increase its investment in education as a percentage of the country’s GDP.

China’s potential to overtake the American economy is real, and it could happen in our lifetime if we don’t prepare our children and our economy for what lies ahead and ensure we can compete.

A Chinese proverb reads, “The person who doesn’t worry about the future will soon be worrying about the present.” It’s time to set aside politics and do the right thing.

Doran of Eden Prairie is a DFL candidate

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