Minnesotans work hard for our families.
We believe that work deserves fair compensation and it doesn’t matter what you look like or where you call home. And that families should have access to affordable, trusted child care and quality, culturally affirming learning environments.
But that’s not always the case in our state. Decades of chronic underfunding have left many families crushed by the cost of care and education while the people who provide it earn poverty-level wages.
It’s time for Minnesota to build a new system for our youngest learners and the workforce who cares for and educates them during such a crucial stage of development.
Two bills lay the groundwork
Gov. Tim Walz and state lawmakers can do this right now by supporting two bills that lay the groundwork for such important work. The legislation would create a state Department of Early Childhood (HF1024/SF2170) and a taskforce to develop a plan so families pay no more than 7% of their income for care and early learning from birth to 4 years old (HF1278/SF1814). Public pre-K would be available for all who want it.
ISAIAH’s Kids Count On Us Coalition and Education Minnesota members spent 18 months studying research and surveys, examining programs across the country and having deep and difficult conversations, resulting in the report “Minnesota’s Birth-4 Care and Education System.” [PDF] These proposals are the foundation of a broader plan to start building a better system of care and education for every child. They also ensure that workers – whether they work in home care or centers and schools – have a voice in the services they give and get the respect and compensation they deserve.
Minnesota ranks 4th out of 51 for most expensive child care in the nation. Child care for two children — an infant and a 4-year-old — costs over $28,000 a year, which is 60% more than the average cost of rent.
Families are sometimes spending more on early care and education than college tuition. Many child care programs and centers operate on razor-thin margins. School districts can’t offer nearly enough pre-K spots to fill the need.
Funding is key
Costs shouldn’t be a barrier for families. Minnesota needs to provide enough funding so all children, no matter if they live in Minneapolis or Thief River Falls, receive the care and early learning opportunities they deserve. Capping child care costs could free up an extra $10,400 in household earnings for the average Minnesota family that could be used for other needs.
Minnesota must also lift up and value the work performed to care for and educate our youngest children. While parents pay exorbitant amounts for child care, centers are barely able to pay their workers a living wage.
At Meadow Park Preschool and Child Care Center in Rochester, 90 percent of the money brought in from tuition goes to paying employees. But on average they make only $13.21 an hour and don’t have employer-provided health insurance or any other compensation.
Half of the workforce that cares for children from birth to 4 years old relies on public assistance to get by. Turnover is high, and early childhood educators and care providers don’t have access to the training they want, need, deserve or can afford. This has caused a significant workforce shortage, due to low pay and few people are going to college to get early childhood degrees.
We can stop the destructive narrative that caring for our youngest children is nothing more than babysitting. Investing in early educators gives them the tools they need to be effective in their jobs and the compensation necessary to create a stable workforce and culturally inclusive environments our children need.
And all this benefits us all — not just the children, families and workers.
Businesses located in areas with strong early child care programming report cost savings from lower rates of tardiness, absenteeism and turnover, and greater concentration and productivity on the job among employees with children. Communities see more revenue generated and fewer people on public assistance.
Minnesota can do it
We have the ability and resources to be bold. We can offer quality care and learning to our youngest children and improve the poor working conditions for those who care for them. The systemic sexism and racism embedded within our current early education system, where many of the workers are women of color, needs to end.
After a year of COVID-19, the situation is worse. The needs are greater and the inequities even larger. This is a time for urgency, for leadership from the governor and our Legislature, and for the wealthiest to pay their fair share to fund the futures of our littlest learners.
Karin Swenson is the executive director of Meadow Park Preschool and Child Care Center in Rochester and part of the ISAIAH Kids Count On Us coalition. Bernie Burnham is vice president of the statewide union Education Minnesota.
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