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Business-backed early childhood quality-rating proposal must be resurrected

Date Published: 04/03/2011

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We all make mistakes and the Minnesota House made a big one last week.  It can and must somehow perform a do-over on an early childhood measure that was defeated, in large part through the behind-the-scenes influence of social and religious conservatives in the Republican Party base.

The legislation would take advantage of private donations to establish a statewide rating system that would help parents assess and find high-quality early childhood care and education offerings for their children.  This initiative will be of great and lasting benefit to disadvantaged and middle-income parents who are most in need of this cost-effective investment in human development.  And the proposal actually puts a premium on parental choice, a favorite mechanism for free-market conservatives.

Moreover, the Quality Rating proposal, and the Parent Aware system it would help expand and develop, enjoys strong business leadership backing and a truly rare breadth of consensus in these polarized times.  As education reporter Beth Hawkins of MinnPost assessed it, "the bill was revenue-neutral, meaning its implementation would not cost a cent, and it enjoyed the backing of (DFL Gov. Mark) Dayton, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and pretty much everyone on the political continuum between them."  The author of the proposal was Rep. Jenifer Loon, an Eden Prairie Republican and a leading critic of the GOP vote to strip it was Duane Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, a former executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership and a former Republican Senate minority leader.

Leading the effort to undermine and defeat the proposal were social and religious conservatives, represented by the Minnesota Family Council and the Education Liberty Watch.  With all due respect to both, on this issue these groups simply do not reflect the mainstream views of the state's business community, our  leading economists, and a vast array of education experts on this issue.  The Minnesota Family Council puts a high priority on "Biblical Worldview" education and generally favors all things private in education, seldom voicing general support for our public institutions or governments in general.  And the Liberty Watch, in a 10-point statement of principles, does not offer a single word of support for public education or schools, positing instead that "nonpublic education without government interference is essential to a healthy education system."

In Minnesota, a clear moderate and progressive majority, joined by many conservatives, essentially agrees that early childhood education is a growing public responsibility, and that the growing percentage of children showing up not ready for kindergarten represents a real threat to our long-term prosperity.

Mainstream business owners and leaders agree that higher-quality early childhood education is essential for the long-term quality of Minnesota's workforce.  And it just doesn't make policital or policy sense for the House majority caucus to continue defying that wisdom and consensus.

Dane Smith

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