Have you seen the flurry of news stories sparked by the most recent survey of child-care costs by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies? The cost of care here made Minnesota the fifth least affordable child-care market in the country in 2010.
The average cost of a licensed child-care center for an infant last year was $12,900. For older preschoolers, it was $9,900. To put that in perspective, infant care costs as much as undergraduate tuition at the University of Minnesota and about $3,000 more than average public college tuition.
In crude dollars, the cost is down about 4.5 percent from 2009. In terms of the rankings, we’re down a smidge from the middle of the last decade when the Twin Cities and Boston jockeyed back and forth for least affordable for several years.
The Star Tribune responded last week with a story about families who are responding by hiring au pairs, young foreigners willing to work for cheap in exchange for a year’s room and board in the United States. The Pioneer Press weighed in yesterday with a story that quoted three single mothers hard-pressed to afford good care for their kids.
I bring the reports up because they beg a few comments about the ongoing public-policy debate about early childhood education in Minnesota. I can only imagine anyone who had a role in that discussion over at the Capitol in the last 10 months thought long and hard about relinquishing their lobbyist registration.
For starters, both stories are about day care. As in a safe, hopefully nurturing place to park the kids while mom — and both stories frame this as mom’s issue — works, and not in terms of early development, kindergarten readiness or the achievement gap.
And both frame the issue as one of affordability for parents. Which it undeniably is — who can afford the aforementioned fees?
But it’s also an issue that we’ve heard over and over again in recent years would be better framed as crucial to the health of the state’s economy and social fabric. Ready4K, the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota, Child Care Works and a host of other organizations have worked hard in recent years to reframe the debate accordingly.
During this year’s legislative session, with the achievement gap and education reform top of mind, we heard over and over from advocates, politicians on both sides of the aisle and business-sector groups that high-quality, affordable early ed should be at the very top of the state’s agenda.
Every dollar we invest in top-notch early ed returns $16 to our economy, according to former Federal Reserve Bank economist Art Rolnick. Top quality, the business-initiated nonprofit MELF has since established, provides the most bang for every tax dollar in terms of achievement gaps forestalled, kids ready for school and, by extension, prepared for college or the work force.
The GOP’s Tea Party wing killed a sensible, revenue-neutral proposal to give the neediest kids scholarships and steer them to the best programs. Because Minnesota already had legislation on the books enabling the quality promotion plan, Gov. Mark Dayton went ahead and instituted it unilaterally after the whirlwind special session.
What all of this says, boiled way down, is that while we as a state want to find ways to make child care more affordable, we do not want early childhood education that costs less. We want pre-K teachers with formal education, small tot-to-teacher ratios and stimulating surroundings.
You think one of these days we’ll get banner headlines that say, essentially, “Look how much more Minnesota gets for its early ed dollars than ‘affordable’ Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, Nos. 49, 50 and 51, respectively?