St. Paul, Minn. — A couple hundred business leaders and early childhood advocates gathered at the St. Paul Travelers Company to discuss school readiness. Many business leaders are concerned that the state won't be able to provide the well-trained workforce they need.
There was no disagreement about the issue's importance among the four candidates who spoke at the event. Former Minneapolis schools superintendent Peter Hutchinson says 60,000 Minnesota children come to school each year, and about half of them are unprepared to learn.
"They cannot function. That youngster ends up in fourth grade not able to read, tearing the classroom apart, disrupting the education for every other kid," says Hutchinson. "That kid ends up not graduating from high school, much less from college, and then he pays for the rest of his life for the choices that were made back at the beginning."
Hutchinson criticized state funding cuts to the state's school readiness program enacted since Gov. Pawlenty was elected.
State Sen. Becky Lourey says Minnesota was making progress in ensuring children were ready for school, but she says those gains have been reversed. Lourey says economists such as Art Rolnick from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis have pointed out the economic benefits of investing in early childhood education.
"We know what to do. We just need the leader who's going to not say, 'Well, frame the issue for me,' but instead say, 'We will fund it. We will fund it, it is as clear as that,'" said Lourey.
Lourey didn't say how she would fund early childhood education. Real estate developer Kelly Doran noted that less than 1 percent of the state budget is spent in this area. Doran says the governor needs to make early childhood education a priority, as other states such as Iowa have done.
"You go further down the road to Arkansas, you have Gov. Huckabee, who's known to be a pretty conservative Republican, who got a conservative Legislature to agree on two tax increases predominantly oriented towards education, including pre-K," Doran said.
The issue is particularly relevant in Minnesota, which has the highest percentage of working women in the country. Three-quarters of mothers of young children work, so their children are in some type of child care.
A group of Minnesota business leaders has created a new foundation, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, to support cost-effective ways to provide quality education to children who aren't ready for school. The foundation has raised $3.5 million from the private sector.
Doran says the group should use the money for a marketing campaign to persuade citizens to pressure government officials on the issue.
State Sen. Steve Kelley suggested the foundation determine how it could best help children under the age of 3. Kelley, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has pushed for all-day kindergarten across the state, which would cost $140 million a year.
"Early childhood development, to the extent it prepares our kids to be effective citizens, is an appropriate thing for government to be involved in," Kelley said. "But we do have to be smart about it. Because we have to expect citizens to play a role too. And the citizens I'm concerned about playing a part are the parents. We have to get them the tools to be prepared."
Kelley says high schools should teach students about the way the brains of young children develop, to prepare them to be effective parents.
Gov. Pawlenty didn't participate in the forum, since he had just returned from China. Spokesman Bill Walsh says Pawlenty strongly supports funding early childhood education if the money is spent wisely.
"How are we spending money at the early childhood level? What's the best way to spend that money? And he's focused it, or tried to refocus some of the early learning more academically, more on school readiness, more on preparation for kindergarten," says Walsh.
Walsh acknowledges that early childhood funding was cut after the state's record $4.5 billion deficit two years ago. He says Pawlenty's top priority then was protecting K-12 classroom funding. Walsh says the governor will try to restore early childhood funding now that the state's economy is improving.
Attorney General Mike Hatch, a DFL candidate for governor, also did not attend the forum, citing a scheduling conflict with his official duties.