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Using Research to Drive Policy in Early Education

December 12, 2016

Art Rolnick has made a career of championing critical public policy issues. He served the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis for many years as the senior vice president and director of research, and is now a senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and co-director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative. Through his research, Rolnick has made contributions to many areas of the economy including monetary policy, economic bidding wars, and most recently, early childhood education.

In recognition of Rolnick’s outstanding achievements, he was selected to give the 2016 Minnesota Lecture. Each year, a committee of graduate students choose an alumnus who has made significant contributions to the discipline of economics. The record of previous speakers is accomplished, beginning in 1999 with Nobel Laureate Daniel McFadden. On November 11, Rolnick gave his talk titled Economists and Public Policy: The Heller Legacy.

“There are not many better investments to make, if any, than early childhood development,” says Rolnick, who was not driven by this topic for the majority of his career. “My expertise was pre-Civil War banking...I didn’t know anything about early childhood education when I was introduced to the topic in 2003.” Although he was not initially well versed in the issue, Rolnick was interested to see if the moral argument for early childhood investment could be strengthened with economic research. Now, while still remaining proficient in monetary policy, monetary history, and banking, and financial economics, he is at the forefront of the field of research surrounding early childhood education and social policy.

“Empower the parents, let the market figure it out,” urges Rolnick on how to close the achievement gap. He recommends giving scholarships to low-income parents for their children to attend a high-performing independently-rated early learning program of their choice and receive voluntary parental mentoring from the day the child is born until the day they start kindergarten. The effects of these scholarships and mentoring programs do not only look good on paper—in communities where this model has been implemented, the percentage of students considered to be ready to start school has increased two-fold. Furthermore, mothers in these communities experienced lower substance abuse and depression. While many of these gains can be used to calculate the program’s impressive return on investment, the immense gratitude Rolnick has witnessed from parents cannot be measured.

Through his role at the Human Capital Research Collaborative, Rolnick is putting his research into practice. He is exploring strategies for securing permanent funding in Minnesota through an endowment, which would grant even the most disadvantaged youth the opportunity to succeed. His policy recommendations are gaining recognitionhis stages range from rural Minnesota to the World Bank, and everywhere in between.

When thinking about the future of early childhood education, Rolnick is optimistic. He thinks that doubling current funding for early learning scholarships in Minnesota is a realistic short-term goal. Eventually, he envisions permanent commitments at a state and federal level to fully fund early learning and ensure that all children across the country enter school prepared to succeed.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.