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Guest Opinion: Early learning scholarships bridge the urban-rural divide

Much has been said and written lately about a rural-urban divide in America. It's increasingly apparent that sound public policy has to help families in communities of every description—urban, suburban, exurban, and rural. Minnesota's Early Learning Scholarships is exactly that kind of policy.

Scholarships address an urgent problem that schools and communities are facing in every corner of the state. Nearly half of Minnesota's children are arriving in kindergarten unprepared. Too many kids never catch up and eventually drop out of school. Dropouts earn less and generate higher taxpayer costs throughout their lifetime. That's a huge problem for all of us. Minnesota needs an educated workforce to compete in the global economy. An educated workforce makes for healthy, prosperous communities.

High quality early childcare and early education is the way to get kids ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. But for too many Minnesota kids, these programs are out of reach. Tragically, about 40,000 low-income Minnesota children under five years old are unable to access the quality early learning programs they need to get prepared for school and life.

These at-risk children are in every community in Minnesota. About half of sholarship-eligible low-income children are in the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, and half are in greater Minnesota.

But how can one policy solution work as well in Minneapolis, Mankato and Motley? After all, some Minnesota communities have many different choices available for childcare and early learning programs, and others have few to choose from.

With flexible Early Learning Scholarships, parents can choose a high quality early learning program based in a community center, home, church, school or nonprofit organization. It's an approach that fits all different types of communities, regardless of the program choices available. As a result, about 43 percent of scholarships are being used in the Twin Cities metro area, and 57 percent are going to children in greater Minnesota. Flexible scholarships are working for parents all across the state.

Flexible scholarships accommodate different types of parental needs and wants. It's not a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, flexible scholarships allow parents to select a program that fits their work schedule, location, as well as cultural and personal preferences.

Expanding Early Learning Scholarships to the 40,000 children that can most benefit from early learning is something that all Minnesotans can embrace. Flexible scholarships won the support of a bipartisan group of legislators and Governor Dayton. A 2015 public opinion survey found that an overwhelming 77 percent of Minnesotans support expanding flexible scholarships.

The election revealed divisions in communities across the state. Giving early learning opportunities to our youngest learners is common ground we should seize. Let's pull together—urban, suburban, exurban and rural—to give every Minnesota child a shot at real success. The health and prosperity of every community in Minnesota depends on it.

Ron Kresha is a Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives from Little Falls who represents a rural area. Melisa Franzen is a DFL member of the Minnesota Senate from Minnetonka who represents an urban and suburban portion of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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