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Universal pre-K would make Minnesota’s child-care shortage much worse

Tamara Hansen

At first blush, public-school-based “Universal Pre-K (UPK)” for 4-year-olds sounds good. But when you look a little more deeply at the issue, the unintended consequences of UPK could be very harmful to thousands of children and families.

Many of the serious negative unintended consequences associated with UPK, which is called “Voluntary Pre-K” in Minnesota, have already been well documented. For instance, a 2- to 3-hour per day UPK program that closes in the summer months simply doesn’t work for parents with full-time jobs. For the children who need the most support in their learning, a nine-month, part-day UPK program also provides insufficient help. Moreover, waiting until age 4 to begin addressing an achievement gap that opens as early as age 1 does a disservice to our most vulnerable kids.

But one other problem with UPK has gotten almost no attention: Minnesota already has a very serious shortage of early care and education programs for children under age 5, and a fully implemented UPK program for 4-year-olds could inadvertently fuel a full-blown crisis.

Michelle Goodwin

A November 2017 online survey of 309 early-care and education providers in Minnesota should be a wake-up call to any Minnesotan concerned about the child-care shortage. The voluntary opt-in survey was sponsored by the nonprofit organization Close Gaps by 5.

The survey found that 92 percent of providers said that UPK would be financially harmful to their program. This financial impact could have a number of implications, all of which would be harmful for the young children those programs serve. The survey found that the financial impact could cause 70 percent of high quality providers to “invest less in maintaining the quality of my program,” 80 percent to “fire or lay off staff,” and 77 percent to “go out of business.”

Imagine the outcry if a law was enacted that caused 77 percent of elementary school principals to say they might have to close their doors and stop serving children. So where is the outcry about the plight of the infants and toddlers served by these programs?

This is undeniable reality: When 4-year olds are moved from child-care programs to a school-based pre-K program, it becomes financially difficult to impossible for many child care providers to continue providing high quality early care and education for infants and toddlers. Even if you don’t care about the impact of UPK on thousands of small programs, the impact on early care and education for Minnesota’s infants and toddlers should be concerning to all of us.

UPK proponents have assured us that state law allows school districts to share the funding they control with high quality programs in their community. But 91 percent of providers say they believe school district officials will be unlikely to share their funding with them. As it turns out, their skepticism is justified: To date, only 1 percent of school districts have shared any of the UPK funding they control with community-based child care providers.

Rather than what is effectively a schools-only UPK monopoly for 4-year olds, what Minnesota needs is a public policy that gives all types of early learning programs an equal opportunity to serve children.

Fortunately, we have such a policy. It’s called Early Learning Scholarships. These scholarships allow parents to choose from a variety of programs based in schools, centers, homes, churches and nonprofit organizations, as long as the program can prove it is using kindergarten-readiness best practices, as measured by the Parent Aware Ratings.

Thousands of low-income parents with such scholarships choose school-based programs, so scholarships are not anti-school. Scholarships simply put parents in charge of the program choice, instead of politicians. As a result, every type of high quality program has an equal opportunity, and every parent has a full range of options to find a program that fits their family’s unique needs.

Maybe 77 percent of early educators who aren’t based in schools won’t close their doors. Let’s hope not. But if even a quarter of them have to close their doors due to UPK, the early care and education sector will be decimated. Even if you don’t care about the plight of those small community-based programs, we all should be very worried about the thousands of Minnesota infants and toddlers whose parents wouldn’t be able to find early learning programs to prepare them for school and life.

Tamara Hansen operates Kiddie Korner Day Care in Pine River, and has 24 years of experience providing early care and education. Michelle Goodwin is the director of New Horizon Academy in downtown St. Paul, and has 18 years of experience providing early care and education. Both of these programs are Parent Aware-rated, indicating that they are using research-based best practices for preparing children for kindergarten.


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Comments (24)


"When 4-year olds are moved from child-care programs to a school-based pre-K program, it becomes financially difficult to impossible for many child care providers to continue providing high quality early care and education for infants and toddlers."

Why? Are they undercharging for infants and toddlers now?

I think all children should receive quality child care. We need to prioritize access to quality programs over the profit margins of providers. If we are having a problem now then adding quality programs for all 4-year olds helps the largest number of people.

One other thing bothers me with this article. If you follow this to the the logical conclusion we should end kindergarten to improve the quality of infant and toddler care. After all if having 4-year olds makes a difference, surely having 5-year olds would help even more. Why not end public schools entirely and outsource them to child care providers for the sake of the infants and toddlers?

Under my MN child care

Under my MN child care license I can take either two or three children under the age of two. The rest must be preschoolers or school agers. If providers lose preschoolers, they can't simply make up for it by taking on more infants and toddlers.

Another issue is that sending children off to preschool doesn't mean their child care spots would open up for others .... They would still need their child care spots for summer, days there are no school, and possibly before and after school hours. Because of this it would not help with the child care shortage.

I agree that all children should receive quality care. But I know that many child care providers are providing just that with the early learning programs.

Infant And Toddlers Rates Are Subsidized

Hi Dan,

You pointed out the same problem with this article that I also noticed. The author probably didn't have the space to focus on this question: are infant and toddler rates subsidized?

Yes. Absolutely. They are subsidized with preschool rates. Here are the facts:

In order to keep rates affordable for working families, programs essentially subsidize infant and toddler rates with preschool rates. Most of the money goes to pay staff. In Minnesota, child care center providers need to maintain a one to four staff to child ratio and a one to ten ratio for preschool age children (I'll leave out toddlers to make this short). If you charge the average rate in MN of $225 per week for preschoolers and the average rate of $295 for infants and you had 10 preschoolers and 4 infants, you'd end up bringing in $2,250 per week in the in the preschool group and only $1,180 per week in infants. If you wanted to bring in the same amount in infants per staff person you'd need to charge $562.50 per child!

Many centers have already closed in MN because it's very difficult to make the finances work already for nonprofits and for-profits a like. The University of Minnesota's child development department, for example, isn't even able to keep their own child care center open. Even more centers will close as children and staff leave for school districts. The harm is going to come very unexpectedly to those families with young children as their rates rise rapidly.

The professionals in the industry have been warning lawmakers for years about this problem. It's time they do something about it.

Are you kidding?

The going rate for infant care 3 years ago in my area was 550 a week at the centers and 295 for the in homes, pre schoolers were 400 and 225. We interviewed one who were getting 2500 a month for 2 kids. I'm fairly certain they haven't gone down. I think outstate childcare needs to be considered a separate entity. I mean what child care center has 14 kids, The average we saw was 35-40. I'm sorry, but I'll not feel sorry for businesses charging double my monthly mortgage to provide me childcare. Not to mention your payroll claims, which I cannot figure. I have family who worked in child care facilities, they left, not for schools but for survival as they were being paid 20k a year. Director's salary on the other hand...I think the cause of the "tight" budgets is far easier to solve than you let on.

Pricing is not as high as you quote on average

It's too bad the prices were that high where you are. I am in a pretty high income suburb and the rates at our centers was on average about half what you posted here. We interviewed and price compared 12 day care centers, both for profit and church based in our area. There was a pretty tight supply and waiting lists at most places. When you advocate for basically 'free' daycare for your four year old you are not considering all the costs and consequences. It's a great deal for four year olds but it hurts children at every other age level. Centers will close and those that remain open will charge more. The school facilities that will be accepting the 4 years olds may have to add space, costing extra capital. And, the funding the state had proposed was pretty temporary. So while the state initially paid for it, the cost for staff would eventually fall back to the local school districts and be borne by local taxpayers. So what looks like free now really isn't. If you read closely between the lines, the bill authorizing the program required that all teachers be licensed, which means unionized. This was really just a hidden way of helping Education Minnesota add thousands of new members on the state's dime. And since there are many studies that show any additional education 'benefit' of 'high quality' UPK programs is lost within a few short years, this program is not a wise cost because of the severe and dramatic impact it has on other kids.

The Math Still Holds

Hi Matt,

Even if the rates you mentioned above are still accurate for your area, the math still holds up: 4 x 550 = $2,200 for infants and 10 x 400 = $4,000 for preschool. You can't really get around that fact. It's not an easy situation. The numbers I used were based on state wide averages published by Child Care Aware of Minnesota. But they still hold up if you use metro or out state averages. I'd be confident in guessing that they hold up anywhere in the country with similar licensing guidelines on ratios.

Also, the numbers I used were just a brief example. I think everyone can get a sense of the problem from that example.

I love your idea of cutting over inflated management salaries but I doubt those salaries exist at any centers that are still operating. The math on that is pretty easy though. They'd need to be making six figures at a small center for it too make a substantial difference. If your strategy worked though and you coupled it with some other innovative strategies like Florida's property tax exclusion for high quality programs and then added in a handful of other small cuts I bet you could start to see a difference.

Another way to approach the problem

If it really costs $562.50 per infant per week (or $29,250 a year) to make it worth it for a private provider I imagine what you would see is many more mothers or fathers staying home with their child for the first two years of the child's life. Personally I would rather subsidize mothers or fathers to stay home and care for infants (paid leave, tax credits, etc) than I would want to subsidize child care centers. Child care centers do great work but nobody beats Mom or Dad.

Great Idea

Great idea. I'd support that even if it meant a small tax increase.


School vouchers for pre-school. These people never stop.

What's Your Solution

This isn't a joke. This has a serious impact on those of us working 50 to 60 hours per week in order to provide for our families.

Who are "these people"?

What's your solution?

Disingenuous at best

Make no mistake, this is a child care industry screed. There's a dirty little secret that many of us who are parents have learned, child care is a captive market monopoly. Luckily for my family, we didn't have to learn this first hand until our youngest has reached preschool age, he'll be starting next fall. While our older child attended pre school (full day, three days a week, provided for charge by our school district) we were shocked to find that virtually all of his classmates were full time students, and utilized the school based before and after school care, which we had thought was prohibitive in its cost. The reason we discovered, was that many of these families were no longer to utilize in home care provders (as they would no longer care for their children part time) and that the child care centers in the area were orders of magnitude MORE expensive than the school program. Simply put, unless they were wealthy, or subsidized, they had NO other option. Fast forward 2 years, we find ourselves with a child in the first grade, and a 4 year old about to begin 5 day full time preschool in the fall. Our in home provider evicted our children in favor of more profitable toddlers (a direct repudation of the claims above) no others will take them, and the center we've been forced into (the literal cheapest in the area) is still at best comparable to the school option. The chains and larger centers are THOUSANDS more.
This nothing more than a plea to preserve the goose that lays the golden eggs, for profit "education" in the same vein as the recently discredited for profit higher education institutions, only more pernicious and ingrained into daily life as they exploit parents with no other options (and government aid systems) to enrich their investors. Any talk of benefit to ANY child, is just that, talk.

Translation - more $ for religious schools

"every parent has a full range of options to find a program that fits their family’s unique needs" and public funds can be used to subsidize organizations that don't even pay taxes in the first place.

Closing our doors

I am director of a 4 star Parent Aware preschool 3-5 year olds. It’s our 51st year in business and unfortunately, our last. Our local school district was awarded 1.4 million dollars to offer free Pre-K. We can’t compete with free. All of our scores from our CEED observation were higher than the averages. We have parents crying and begging us to stay open, but with such a tight budget, we can’t afford to keep our doors open. So yes, it is starting already.


All those kids over 51 years, who could not afford your prices, will FINALLY have access to what your clients are begging you for. I understand your position, but do YOU care about theirs.

We can look to research in

We can look to research in other states that have adopted universal access to preschool programs to see what the consequences are for the existing providers. The state of Georgia's universal access program offers vouchers to all families who can enroll their kids in pre-existing centers that serve four year olds, new non-school centers that enter the market in response to the vouchers, and school-based programs. What happened? Enrollment in the pre-existing non-school centers increased. See Bassok's 2014 article in the Journal of Urban Economics.

I'm sorry but this isn't about your business model

You acknowledge there's a critical child care shortage-one that you are failing to resolve, but a program that resolves that shortage by providing universal access is "bad" for your industry because it may draw children out of your business.

Our priority as a State and community is to provide child care efficiently and economically, not sustain your industry. You don't provide any data that universal pre-k would make the "problem" of shortage worse, you're simply complaining that it will bad for your business.

Since your industry is already failing to provide the necessary access to child care, its failing it's community mission, this is why we're looking for alternatives... and you provide no alternatives, you just complain about the impact U-pre K will have on your business model.

We can accommodate the summer gap by simply extending the service, and keeping school based programs open.

A well designed and financed system of care.

Compared to other country, our society is a cheapskate for our younger children. We can find money for walls with Mexico, new weapons systems and executive excesses such as President but cannot figure out how to pay for both childcare and early education, instead fight one getting more with the results of the other getting less?

Let's face facts. We do not care about human life in its early stage. Our now essentially requires the major of family to have both adults working. You cannot work if your child isn't being cared for. Those who care for young children deserve decent pay. Young families are stretched already and they have double funding chilldcare eve with low salaries being the norm.

Aren't we broadly pro-choice in wanting to make the best choices and pro-life in wanting children to thrive. This is the case where everyone should advocate - universal coverage by expanding funding on child development through childcare AND early education through universal and starting our efforts. Here is what I advocate. The options of a parent home with a baby through age 2 with with federal support), subsidized children care through age 4, and early education availble fom age until kindergarten. A mix of public and private services, with the willingness to pay for more children living in difficult settings..

Unlucky Kids

We know which children need the most help if we really want to close the achievement gap and end generational poverty. And yet it seems people here are advocating for free Pre-K for all kids... Instead of making that money stretch further to help the truly unlucky kids through pre-k for low income household scholarships.

Now I understand that Ed MN wants more members, and middle income households would like free childcare. But wouldn't it be better to advocate for the unluckiest of kids who truly need the help?


For your consideration, here is an interesting link from our friends at Education MN.

Where as here is the MDE page for focused scholarships.

Personally, if we are truly dedicated to closing the education gap I think we need to prioritize our efforts and spending on the kids with poorly qualified / capable Parents. Not dilute the effort by giving middle class Parents who's kids do fine already"free pre-K".

Check the Claims

Thanks for sharing the links, John, but did you read the information contained therein? While it's clear you think Ed Mn is simply self-serving in its' support of universal pre-K, it would seem you need to respond to their claim that universal is more impactful than targeted services on all kids. In other words, what you think is most effective, and to do so is not illogical on the surface, is actually less so.

Two points to consider; you claim that students of middle income parents "do just fine". By what measure? Is it true of all students of middle class families? (no) Can you predict which middle class students will do just fine and which need more support as early as age 4, or are you willing to just play the odds, knowing that for many it's a losing bet/


Unfortunately they did not provide any sources to support their opinion. Or I would have read that also.

As for my view regarding Education MN, I think they are good people who are very confident in their capabilities and systems, even though they are leaving a large number of unlucky kids behind. Please remember that if one sees themselves as a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I think I could predict which children need extra assistance. Just look at the scholarship criteria as a starting point:
- Child of a teen parent.
- Currently in foster care.
- In need of child protective services.
- Experienced homelessness in the last 24 months.

I would likely add any child living in:
- a low income single parent home.
- a non-English speaking home

I would also recommend that these kids attend school year round until proficient.

Please remember the goal is to reduce the gap, not raise the capability of the luckiest kids.

The Goal

"Please remember the goal is to reduce the gap, not raise the capability of the luckiest kids." The goal is also not to line the pockets of entrepreneurs or hedge fund investors. Limiting our efforts to giving "scholarships" to at-risk children to use in privately-run preschools is an open invitation to grifters (the privately run/taxpayer funded education segment seems to attract a lot of these).

Tough crowd

All n all looks like the authors hit a tough crowd here.

Confirmation Bias

I think you are suffering from confirmation bias.

I see many who are in support of the authors including myself.