Twin Cities Thinkers

Meet the Minnesotans shaping our future

Exploring the Economics of Early Childhood Education

Art Rolnick spent most of his life studying arcane economic history. But in the last decade, Rolnick's attention has turned to a very modern problem: the need to fund early childhood education.

Rolnick pioneered the idea that investing money in preschool makes economic sense. Before he came along, early childhood education funding was merely a moral issue. Rolnick proved it's also a smart investment.

Matt Hemsley
Nick Vlcek
Matt Hemsley
Art Rolnick
Nick Vlcek
Art Rolnick
Fred Haberman
Nick Vlcek
Fred Haberman

"His voice was a really important one to add, because he's an economist and he's well-liked," says Don Fraser, the former mayor of Minneapolis.

Rolnick first began thinking about the idea nine years ago at a luncheon in downtown Minneapolis. Fraser and Al Quie, the former governor of Minnesota, had helped start a nonprofit to raise money for early childhood programs, and the nonprofit's executive director was making his pitch.

Rolnick raised his hand.

"I don't think a moral argument would take you very far," he announced. "I really think you're going to have to go deeper. I think you should look at the economics behind it."

Shortly after, Rolnick got a call from the nonprofit: Could he provide some data? Rolnick and colleague Rob Grunewald crunched the numbers based on four studies of the long-term benefits of preschool.

Their results were astonishing: Money spent on early childhood education programs had a 16 percent rate of return.

Rolnick and Grunewald were instant celebrities in the education world. They traveled the country on the heels of that success, sharing their findings.

They published a second paper, this time arguing that low-income parents should get scholarships to use at the preschool of their choice. They also advocated for one-on-one mentoring that starts even before the child is born.

Now these ideas are being tested in Frogtown, along with Denver and Sioux Falls. Here in the Twin Cities, the pilot program has already shown promising results: More children from low-income families are going to preschool.

"I've been to the White House on this," Rolnick says. "How many more kids are we going to leave behind?"

Telling Stories That Change the World

Fred Haberman has a gift for telling stories.

"He's one of those rare characters that can take his real vision for a better world and also make a business out of it," says Ann Bancroft, the arctic explorer.

Haberman helped Bancroft publicize her vision of becoming the first woman to ski across Antarctica. He guided the process of getting the word out, organizing interviews with the Today Show, NBC Nightly News, The Early Show, the BBC, USA Today, Reuters, David Letterman, and NPR's Morning Edition.

Haberman also brainstormed an event that showcases one of Minnesota's most cherished pastimes: pond hockey. Last year, called Haberman's U.S. Pond Hockey championships, "One of 12 'must see' events in 2009."

Haberman has worked with many local nonprofits, including the Wedge, the Minneapolis Bike Tour, and the Museum of Russian Art. He helped the Community Reinvestment Fund, a nonprofit that connects low-income people with loans.

He also guided the storytelling for the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund, which supports veterans of combat zones who have served since September 11, 2001.

"We've been fortunate to have raised over $10 million since launching the effort," says Michael Gorman, one of the fund's founders.

Haberman's grandfather was chair of the communications department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he taught a course on great speeches and speakers throughout the ages. The way Haberman sees it, he's just carrying on the old traditions.

"In today's world, there's a big value around being authentic," Haberman says. "Our mission is to tell the stories of pioneers who are making a difference in the world."

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Do you know someone who is thinking about ways to make the Twin Cities better? Let us know. Email nominations to We'll publish the best in a future issue.

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