By Don Davis
President Barack Obama’s education secretary told an audience packed with Minnesota educators Tuesday that he would like to send the state millions more dollars to match state money approved this year to increase early-childhood education.
But any such appropriation first must get through a Congress that has failed to pass a budget. Secretary Arne Duncan said political leaders need to face reality and understand that spending money on children now will save money for years to come.
Duncan appeared at three events Tuesday, including a discussion with Gov. Mark Dayton, his education commissioner and leaders of the business, military and faith communities. All stressed the need to teach the state’s youngest residents.
The secretary said Obama’s education plan includes $97 billion over the next decade for early-childhood education, funded by a 94-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase, with tens of millions of dollars available to Minnesota.
However, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate and Republican-controlled U.S. House have failed to pass many pieces of significant legislation, including a federal budget. Duncan could give no specific pathway to pass the president’s plan, but said: “It’s very important for Washington to pay attention to the real world.”
Duncan said state after state, under leadership of both major parties, are passing bigger budgets for early-childhood education. During his Tuesday Minnesota visit, he praised the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton for increasing spending.
Minnesota’s Democrat-written education budget for the next two years includes $40 million in pre-school scholarships for 8,000 poor families and $24 million more to improve the quality and accessibility of child care. The budget also spends $134 million to fund all-day kindergarten for all school districts that want it beginning next year.
Duncan said studies show that for every $1 invested in early-childhood programs, $7 is returned to taxpayers in the form of less crime, fewer welfare payments and better-trained employees.
“We think so short term in this country,” the secretary said.
Duncan told nearly 300 people in the Bloomington John F. Kennedy High School cafeteria, mostly educators, that education is more important than ever: “If you drop out of high school, you are basically condemned to social failure.”
State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Target Foundation President Laysha Ward told of their upbringing in poor families and the boost Head Start provided.
“It just gives such a great start,” Cassellius said.
Art Rolnick, who used to lead the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, said spending money on children leads to big financial returns, “the best economic development investment the public can make.”
Rolnick said studies have proven that after businesses donated funds to early-childhood programs in the Twin Cities and White Earth Nation Reservation that the youth did better in many areas.
Maj. Gen. Rick Nash, leader of the Minnesota National Guard, said education problems hurt the country’s security. He said 75 percent of American youth do not qualify for the military because they do not have diplomas, they are not in good physical shape, they have criminal records and other factors that education could help eliminate.
“This will affect our ability to provide security,” Nash said.
Members of the panel agreed on the answer to a question about how to attract and keep good teachers: improve their pay.
“We should stop trashing teachers,” Dayton said, referring to political debate in which Democrats say Republicans are attacking educators by cutting budgets.
“We will have to pay for quality,” Rolnick said.