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Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 27

The promise of pre-K education

Minnesota needs a greater investment in closing the achievement gap.

Suppose you had a problem that you knew how to attack but were content to wait a lifetime to finish the job. Would anyone think that’s OK?

That’s where Minnesota stands in providing educational opportunities to 35,000 of its youngest, most-vulnerable children now left behind in the current state budget. If the state tiptoes ahead with aid at the current tempo, reaching every at-risk kid will take nearly 70 years. Americans may colonize Mars before every Minnesota child who needs help gets it.

Gov. Tim Walz faces increasing pressure to act. Walz recently received a call to action in a letter signed by a bipartisan group of 150 former Minnesota elected officials, business executives and nonprofit leaders.

“Tragically, Minnesota has some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, gaps that open as early as age one,” the letter said. “If we don’t get on top of this festering problem soon, it won’t be long before Minnesota’s communities, economy and children are harmed.”

The governor should heed the call.

Once a leader in educating children under age five — Minnesota started pilot programs more than a dozen years ago — the state lately has been marking time. The state’s $70 million in scholarship spending for the low-income parents to find quality education for their children, under age 5, has gone unchanged since 2017.

Only an administrative change and a one-time $4.5 million extension of scholarship programs already in place, recently added a meager 500 to early-education rolls.

What’s required to offer scholarships to the 35,000 children now left on their own? Big money, but not in comparison to what the state already is spending. The state budget for K-12 education is $10 billion a year.

That money has bought a good education for many but lamentable results for some — tagging Minnesota with an achievement gap that shows no sign of narrowing.

The cost of pre-K education for every child from a low-income family would be an additional $420 million a year. That’s a 4% increase over current public education spending. What would the state get in return? Kids who are better prepared. Children who enter kindergarten already exposed to reading, math and other skills. In short, students who have learned to learn.

The state’s complacency on increasing early childhood education comes at a time when the benefits of pre-K education are clear.

Several Democratic presidential candidates have proposed federal initiatives to extend pre-K. And the Federal Reserve System views early education as an economic tool. The central bank recently honored Minneapolis Fed economist Rob Grunewald for efforts that “have provided deep and lasting impact on the well-being of many lower-income individuals and families.”

Grunewald won a pledge of $20 million from local businesses to set up a “four-star” evaluation system that helped parent evaluate preschool programs competing for students.

“As of 2018, nearly 16,000 early learning scholarships have been offered to children,” the Fed noted in its citation.

Pre-K programs in Minnesota offer more than promise. They’re delivering results — measurable and sustainable.

The time to extend help to all children who need it is now. Let’s not wait until the approach of the 22nd century.

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The Free Press of Mankato, Dec. 2

No child should be denied a hot school meal

Why it matters: Too many incidents have popped up in school lunchrooms where children are shamed for meal nonpayment. The practice needs to come to a grinding halt.

Like a bad meal that revisits hours after eating, lunch shaming in school cafeterias keeps coming back up in Minnesota.

Enough already.

No school cafeteria worker should ever take away the lunch of any child because of a zero balance in his meal account. No child should get a shaming stamp on her hand for nonpayment. No child should be given a sack of cold food in front of peers who are handed hot food trays.

The most recent lunch-shaming incident to draw notice occurred this fall in the Richfield district when lunches were being tossed because students owed $15 or more. At least administrators stepped in and stopped the practice when they became aware.

But this shouldn’t be happening anywhere anymore. Two years ago the Stewartville district gained attention for scraping students’ lunches into buckets if bills hadn’t been paid, and that was supposed to be the last lunch-shaming incident.

Luckily, students in the Mankato Area Public Schools District aren’t ever subjected to such treatment. Local policy is that no child is denied a meal or given a lower-cost substitute meal if their family is behind on lunch payments.

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That practice needs to be adopted statewide.

School districts need to train its food service workers to adhere to no-shaming practices or face dismissal.

And the Legislature needs to pass a law, as previously proposed, to strengthen the protection of students who should eat nutritious meals every school day, no matter their ability to pay or the possible lack of action by their parents.

With that protection, the state needs to step up and help districts pay for the meal debt. Unfunded mandates are already a burden for districts, such as trying to pay for special education services.

Resolving the payment issue is complex and likely multifaceted, depending on the situation of each district and their method of reaching out to parents who are behind on payments.

But one fact remains perfectly clear and concrete about the lunch-shaming that keeps surfacing: Children deserve better.

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St. Cloud Times, Nov. 29

Local numbers show your donations are needed

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It's true. Between now and year-end, Central Minnesotans will be inundated with requests for countless things. Think sale prices, even lower sale prices, sweet treats and more.

Don't let the really important requests, though, get lost in your holiday shuffle: Give what you can to help those in need.

From social media posts to bell-ringers, from church bulletins to direct mail, it's the season when our thoughts turn to helping others.

Why? Because plenty of our fellow Central Minnesotans need help.

Here are a sampling of statistics to prove it:

Minnesota's poverty rate was 10.5% in 2017. However, it was 14.2% in Benton County and 13.4% in Stearns. Even in "wealthy" Sherburne County, like most counties considered suburban Twin Cities, the poverty rate hit 7.8%.

Look a little deeper.

As of Tuesday, the St. Cloud school district was serving 400 students it considers to be homeless. That number fluctuates weekly, said district spokeswoman Tami DeLand.

Similarly, 58.4% of the district's 10,356 students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. For some individual schools, it's almost 9 out of 10 students.

Think about that for a minute.

More than half the students in St. Cloud public schools live in homes where it's hard to make ends meet.

The need for help, though, is not limited by age.

The Minnesota Demographer's Office reports poverty rates statewide are highest among black (32%), American Indian (31%) and Hispanic (21%) populations — three to four times higher than the rates of non-Hispanic white Minnesotans (7.5%).

Minnesota women are more often living in poverty than men — 10.5% in 2018. The poverty rate for men in Minnesota was 8.7%.

Elderly Minnesotans also struggle. Among Minnesotans 80 and older, 11.4% lived in poverty in 2017. Among those ages 65-69, it's 8.2%. (Nationwide, more than 2.8 million women 65 and older and about 1.6 million men in that age range were living at or below the federal poverty level of $11,500 in 2017.)

In case you're wondering, the federal poverty level for a household of two is about $16,500. Add another $4,420 for every additional family member.

Those numbers help explain why last year Catholic Charities in St. Cloud provided assistance to nearly 53,000 Central Minnesotans. That ranged from providing about 30,000 people with 1.9 million pounds of food to giving $62,000 in local financial assistance.

Of course, donations don't have to be monetary in form. Catholic Charities alone tapped about 3,000 volunteers who logged 232,000 hours of service. Thousands of volunteers found ways to help at dozens (hundreds?) of other local charities.

So as you count down the final 30 days of 2019 amid a blitz of sales pitches, party invitations and travel planning, don't overlook those requests from local organizations asking you to help others by giving of your time, treasure or talent.

There are plenty of friends and neighbors who would appreciate your generosity. The statistics prove it.

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