Well before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Minnesota, we faced two serious crises – a serious shortage of quality child-care slots and some of the nation’s worst achievement gaps. The pandemic will worsen both crises.
Achievement gaps are differences in levels of proficiency measured between groups of children. They can be measured as early as age 1 and are often caused in part by early learning opportunity gaps, such as the 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under 5 in families unable to afford quality early learning programs. The children most likely to fall into Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps are children in low-income families due to lack of opportunity.
Now, with unemployment rising, Minnesota is likely to see waves of new families with young children thrust into poverty, making the achievement gap problem even more dire. This should concern all Minnesotans.
Beyond the achievement gap crisis, there’s the child-care shortage crisis. Before the pandemic, Minnesota families already had a significant shortage, with only two quality child-care slots available for every 10 children under age 5 on average. Now the problem is much worse. A March 2020 survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found that 55 percent of Minnesota child-care programs can’t survive more than a two-week shutdown without public support.
Granted, many other sectors of the economy are also hurting. But child care truly is different. In Minnesota about 75 percent of employed Minnesotans with young children rely on child care. As such, it serves as the foundation of our economy.
Without child care, many essential workers – caregivers, cleaners, deliverers, grocers, first responders, etc. – can’t work. Without child care, many nonessential workers can’t go back to work to fuel a desperately needed economic recovery. Without child care, Minnesota can’t have the educated workforce we need for successful communities and global competitiveness.
Urgently needed solutions
So, what can we do? We co-chair a work group made up of organizations ranging from the nonprofit Think Small to the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. We recently reached consensus on a white paper that makes a series of recommendations.
Why release recommendations now, just as the Legislature has adjourned? Minnesota leaders will continue to face many urgent pandemic relief problems in the coming months, so special sessions may be necessary. This issue must be at the top of their future agenda. Also, some recommendations can be adopted administratively, without legislative action.
Our recommendations address both the demand and supply side of the equation. To stimulate the consumer demand necessary for child-care programs to survive, and to address achievement gaps, we propose funding access to quality child care settings for children in low-income families and for the children of middle-income workers in critical sectors through Early Learning Scholarships and the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP).
Scholarships offer several practical advantages. They provide direct help, preserve learning continuity, and have bipartisan support to ease the path to swift enactment. They also are aligned with the research about what will best close achievement gaps. We recommend reforming CCAP over time so it has more of these advantages, and immediately adjusting reimbursement rates to put unspent federal funding to use fighting the impact of the pandemic.
To stimulate the supply of quality child-care programs, we also propose additional Peacetime Emergency Child Care Grants. Gov. Tim Walz and bipartisan leaders of the Legislature deserve a great deal of credit for quickly passing the first round of grants. Unfortunately, in that first round there was only enough funding to help one of out every four programs that sought help. That initial funding was necessary, but it simply won’t be sufficient.
Our white paper also recommends providing more rewards and training to help child-care providers adopt pandemic-specific quality best practices through the Parent Aware Rating system. As we rebuild the sector, we are urging our leaders to build it back better than it was.
Delivering relief for all Minnesotans
Adopting our recommendations will help not only ensure that child-care providers survive, it’s a relief package that delivers huge benefits to all Minnesotans: children, parents, workers, employers, taxpayers – essentially Minnesota’s entire economy.
The choice before us is as clear as it is urgent. No child care, no achievement gap progress. No child care, no workers. No child care, no economic recovery. We must act now.
Jan Kruchoski is managing principal of CliftonLarsenAllen Executive Search and former chair of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors. Fred Senn is a founder of the Minnesota-based ad agency Fallon Worldwide and serves on the board of the early education oriented nonprofit Think Small. Kruchoski and Senn are co-chairs of Minnesota’s Early Care and Education Crisis Work Group. A related issue brief and the full white paper can be reviewed at ThinkSmall.org/Crisis.
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