Minnesota has been ahead of most other states in recognizing the importance of early childhood education, and investing up front in this priceless human capital. Currently, thanks to bi-partisan support and strong consensus among business leaders and childhood experts, Minnesota is putting hundreds of millions of dollars more into quality child-care than we were just a decade ago, through a variety of systems.
Yet for all this effort, our work is far from done, and other states are recognizing the powerful competitive advantage of more early investment. In a recent ranking of “Best States’’ on early childhood measures, Minnesota came in 7th for program quality but 17th for percentage served by pre-K enrollment. Thousands of our youngest people who need support and high-quality intellectual and emotional development still do not receive it, in part because the market is not responding to the demand with sufficient supply, particularly in rural communities and Greater Minnesota.
In the metro areas and suburbs, fairly large and professionally staffed child care centers are the most common place for early child care and education. Families in our more rural communities by contrast are often unable to afford access, or child care of any kind for that matter, as population sparsity won’t support larger professional centers. Rural areas are served by small family-run, in-home providers and a variety of factors is sharply reducing that supply. “A Quiet Crisis: Minnesota’s Childcare Shortage,” an extensive report by the Center for Rural Policy and Development (CRPD), documents this market failure to serve Greater Minnesota, and offers solutions.
The CRPD study reports that the number of licensed in-home family childcare providers in rural Minnesota has dropped by more than 25% since 2006, causing especially critical shortages in infant care. With less competition and fewer providers, many parents must pay more for their childcare than they would in a stable market, creating a disincentive to work for low-income families. And it means many children will not get the head start afforded to many of their Twin Cities peers.
A key finding in the report is that low pay for child-care workers is a major contributor to the crisis. According to a recent report from the Department of Employment and Economic Development, 85% of child care employees make $20,000 or less in income annually. This barely livable income leads to high turnover in the profession, especially when higher paying elementary school positions open. This trend coupled, with the rising cost of becoming licensed and trained, explains why this industry is struggling to find and retain employees. The situation is simply untenable in the long-run, and demands for a policy response are mounting, increasingly from employers and rural economic development leaders, as well as from parents.
Meanwhile, research continues to show that children who receive high-quality early care and cognitive development tend to do have better outcomes in workforce readiness, higher incomes, more stability, and better health indicators than peers who do not. We know that we cannot afford to wait until children are four to start developing socially and intellectually.
Here’s just a few things we need to do, and voters need to prod candidates in 2018 toward these solutions. Plenty of other great ideas for policy responses and background information can be found on the webpages of the MinneMinds coalition and the advocacy organization Think Small.
• More state investment across-the-board for helping needy children receive various highly rated and accredited programs. In the last legislative session about $50 million was allocated to early education investment which builds off the $500 million already invested in public school programs, scholarships, and child care assistance. But this was only about a fourth of what Gov. Mark Dayton sought. We need to fully fund Early Learning Scholarships for low-income 3-year-olds and 4-year olds, for at least 3,400 students statewide currently not served.
• Many more incentives for our best and brightest to enter this field, leading to a steady supply of child-care providers and early education teachers and assistants. This means any combination of higher wages, benefits, tuition and debt forgiveness, assistance covering registration fees and licensing, and creating easier access to materials for educators to learn about best practices and techniques.
• Encouraging local solutions for child and family providers, especially in Greater Minnesota. We can encourage innovations and opportunities for home-based programs that emphasize high-quality care. This can mean loosening restrictions on child population thresholds and offering tax breaks for locations that act as homes and schools while still maintaining certification processes.
We simply can’t afford complacency on this up-front investment in our youngest and most vulnerable Minnesotans. If we can make progress on these solutions, we’ll not only improve the lives of thousands of kids and parents, but we’ll be preparing our economy for long-term competitiveness. Nothing matters more than the quality of our human capital.
Brendan Klein is a junior majoring in Economics and Political Science at Saint John's University. He was a summer 2017 intern with Growth & Justice.