ST. PAUL-Minnesota does a lot to prepare children for elementary school, but its often tough for families to find the right program, leaving some children without the head start they need to succeed.
Those are the findings of an analysis of Minnesota's early learning programs released Thursday by the state Legislative Auditor, a government watchdog. The organization looked at the reach and effectiveness of nine different programs that received state funding to provide preschool and other programs to young children.
In a letter to lawmakers, Legislative Auditor James Nobles and his deputy Judy Randall characterized the programs, overseen by three state agencies, as "complex and fragmented." They recommended lawmakers work to remove legal barriers so state agencies can streamline the system and gather important data on outcomes.
"Even quite similar programs have different eligibility and program requirements," the letter said. "We also found that the lack of important data prevents Minnesota from measuring the statewide effectiveness of most early childhood programs."
The Legislature has spent years debating the best way to fund early learning programs with a primary goal of closing the state's persistent academic achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates.
Republicans have pushed to focus a limited amount of funding on students who need it most. Gov. Mark Dayton wants a universal program to be available for four-year-olds while also funding scholarships and other efforts for younger students.
Minnesota now spends about $360 million annually on services for young learners and their families. Those programs stretch over nine different categories.
Here's a breakdown of what they do and how much they cost:
Early Childhood Family Education: A school program to provide parent education to support children's learning and development. About 19,000 children participated at a cost of $53 million.
Health and development screenings: Schools assess children's growth, vision, hearing, speech, and well-being prior to enrolling in kindergarten and elementary school. Nearly 64,000 children were screened last year at a cost of about $5 million.
Home visiting: Local public health agencies provide nurses and other health professionals for home visits to support parents and healthy growth and development. More than 11,000 participated last year at a cost of $16.7 million.
Head Start: A collaboration of nonprofits and local schools to get low-income students ready for kindergarten. Minnesota has about 15,000 "slots" for head start and early head start and it is funded by $25.3 million in state and $131.6 million in federal money.
School Readiness: All school districts offer these programs to prepare children for kindergarten. Low-income families can participate free of charge. It cost about $49 million to serve 21,000 children.
Voluntary Preschool: Many districts offer preschool programs, often for a fee. The state also provides about $25 million in ongoing funding to help low-income students, plus one-time funding set to expire next year. About 6,000 children were enrolled in preschool this school year, according to state data.
Parent Aware Quality Ratings: Early learning providers are voluntarily evaluated for quality to be eligible for certain scholarships and other state aid. The state spent $9 million rating 1,220 providers.
Child care assistance: Financial help for daycare for low-income families. Includes eligibility requirements and programs must focus on school readiness. About 26,000 children under five participate, but children up to 12 are eligible. State spends about $240 million annually and another $125 million comes from federal sources.
Early Learning Scholarships: Aid for low-income children to attend early learning programs with a focus on closing the academic achievement gap. Scholarships can be used at public and private programs. The state spends about $40 million a year to help 11,250 children.
The Legislative Auditor's examination found restrictions on data sharing and other hurdles make it hard to know if those services are duplicating efforts or how well they are paying off.
They recommend better aligning eligibility requirements, creating a universal way to identify children receiving services and requiring school readiness screenings for participants to better grade program quality. State agencies also need more authority to share data and coordinate programs.
It's unclear what, if any, impact the findings will have on the current legislative session that is set to wrap up in less than a month. Gov. Dayton has pushed the Legislature to make permanent $50 million in additional preschool funding lawmakers approved on a one-time basis last year.
But Republican leaders have said that is a decision best left to next year when the next state budget is crafted.