Minnesota is experiencing three related crises — a serious child care shortage, an inadequate supply of workers and some of the nation’s worst achievement gaps.
All three crises pose a serious threat to Minnesota’s present and future. The common thread running through them is a need to quickly and dramatically improve our early care and education (ECE) infrastructure. Gov. Tim Walz deserves a lot of credit for proposing a historically large investment in early childhood programs to address those crises. Now, the House and Senate need to work on a bipartisan basis to pass legislation that gets the details right.
Over recent months a diverse group of organizations ranging from Minnesota’s business groups to children’s advocacy groups formed an ECE Crisis Work Group focused on the specifics of what is needed. These are groups who experience the three crises in different ways, so their consensus report is a key contribution to this debate.
The work group’s first recommendation is to fund Early Learning Scholarships for 31,000 low income Minnesota children who currently can’t afford quality early learning programs.
These scholarships will give an early learning lifeline to the children who are at greatest risk of falling into achievement gaps that open as early as age one. At the same time, those 31,000 scholarships will create an influx of new consumer demand, which will incentivize child care programs to stay open and expand. And the scholarships also will empower thousands of parents to get back to work to address Minnesota’s acute labor shortage.
The Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) is another funding stream that has been used to help low income children. But policymakers need to reform CCAP so that it is ensuring our most vulnerable children are benefiting from research-based kindergarten-readiness best practices. If resources are available after serving all low income children, we recommend the Legislature extend such subsidies to middle class families as well. Doing so will help families that are struggling to afford child care. It also will create additional consumer demand to encourage child care programs to say open and expand in communities experiencing shortages.
Many policymakers are interested in funding direct grants to help child care programs expand. The work group also supports those efforts, as long as the assistance is tied to adoption of the best practices that our young children need to thrive.
The work group’s report includes other recommendations to better our ECE infrastructure, such as providing more quality improvement assistance, improving our data collection system, and consolidating ECE functions into a single streamlined state agency. Though these recommendations may be more obscure and “wonky,” they are also important.
References to quality improvement are woven throughout the group’s recommendations. For example, scholarships are preferred, because they demand the use of quality programs. Why does quality improvement matter so much?
First, economists have found that quality programs are necessary to achieve a high return-on-investment (ROI) for taxpayers. For a public investment this large, maximizing ROI ought to be a foremost consideration for good stewards of tax dollars.
Second, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development has found that putting children in low quality programs can actually set them back. Specifically, it can lead to worse problem behaviors, decreased language skills, a stunting of cognitive development and lower kindergarten-readiness scores.
Borrowing from the medical sector, the first rule for our ECE investment strategy should be to “first, do no harm.”
By the way, this focus on ECE quality improvement is something that both the Trump and Biden administrations have promoted, so it is a relatively rare area of bipartisan agreement. Business and technology innovator Steve Jobs frequently stressed that, “Details matter, it’s worth waiting to get it right.” Facing three related crises that threaten all Minnesotans, state policymakers don’t have time to wait. But this work group’s recommendations will help them quickly get the all-important details of ECE investment and reform right.
Jan Kruchoski is retired managing principal at CliftonLarsonAllen, and a former president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. Fred Senn is a founding partner of the Minnesota-based ad agency Fallon Worldwide. Kruchoski and Senn are co-chairs of Minnesota’s Early Care and Education Crisis Work Group. The Work Group report is available at www.thinksmall.org/crisis.