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Minnesota Legislature

Auditor's report highlights state's "complex and fragmented" early childhood programming

Jody Hauer, evaluation coordinator for the Office of the Legislative Auditor, presents the 2018 evaluation report on early childhood programs to the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division Feb. 7. Photo by Andrew VonBank

“Complex and fragmented” is how the Office of the Legislative Auditor describes early childhood programming in Minnesota.

Jody Hauer, evaluation coordinator with the office, presented key findings of a 2018 evaluation report on early childhood programs to the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division Thursday.

Of the state’s nearly 40 early childhood programs, the report took an in-depth look at nine of the most ubiquitous. The programs are geared toward preparing students for kindergarten. However, they differ in eligibility requirements, staffing requirements, funding streams, and how, or if, they assess program effectiveness.

“We concluded that the variation that exists among the early childhood programs both in terms of funding requirements and other program requirements has created a very complex and fragmented set of programs,” Hauer said.

To remedy this, the report recommends creation of a working group to identify areas that can be aligned, with hopes of simplifying the application process for families and program providers, and to provide more consistency and transparency in funding.   

An issue that garnered several inquiries from division members is the state’s collection and sharing of data across the state departments that operate them: health, human services, and education. The restrictions on data make it difficult to determine program effectiveness, the extent of early childhood screening, and if there is duplication of services.

Given the size and scope of the issues, Hauer acknowledged it’ll be time consuming and expensive to correct them.

“We make a number of recommendations, some of them are major recommendations that would require a lot of resources,” she said. “But we think that those are necessary if you’re going to address the problems that we found.” 

The report and recommendations were welcomed by the agencies, said Bobbi Burnham, director of early learning services at the Department of Education.

“All three agencies who were engaged in this audit were very supportive of all the recommendations and quite frankly glad that they’re on paper and out in the open to be addressed,” she said. 

The agencies have begun work to address the issues, Burnham said, and will be able to make great strides with the help of a $4.7 million federal grant that was received in December 2018. The one-year preschool planning and development grant will be used to do a comprehensive needs assessment and to develop a strategic plan for newborn children to age 5 across the state systems.   

Rep. Dave Pinto (DFL-St. Paul), the division chair, encouraged the departments to immediately begin an assessment of their data practices, determine how state statue impacts those, and testify to what lawmakers can do to improve communication between agencies and programs.

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