One explanation offered for Minnesota's shockingly high cost of center-based child care is that the state and its parents simply have higher standards for children -- and that more money equates to higher-quality child care. This was offered in reaction to Thursday's annual cost report from Child Care Aware of America, which ranked Minnesota as the second least affordable state for center-based child care. (The average cost to send one infant to a child care center in Minnesota was $13,579 in 2011, according to the report. That is higher than the cost of one year at a state college: $9,966!)
But a closer look at national child care data suggests quality can come at a more reasonable price, at least in some states.
In the latest report, Child Care Aware combined new cost figures for child care centers with an older 2011 ranking of states on their child care quality. The advocacy group noted that many of the cheapest states such as Mississippi also had some of the poorest quality. But there are a few "bargain" states out there that merit attention.
Oklahoma, for example, ranked 2nd for its child care quality. And yet the new cost report only ranked it 30th for the cost of its child care centers. (One year of infant care at a center in Oklahoma averaged $7,288 in 2011.) North Dakota, Florida, Tennessee and Delaware likewise had above average quality rankings despite below average costs.
Obviously the labor markets and demographics of the states are substantially different -- so it's a bit unfair to compare these states to Minnesota. And Child Care Aware's measurement of quality isn't perfect; it's mostly based off of state child care regulations for safety and education and whether states conduct frequent inspections of centers.
But the comparison of states nonetheless suggests that money isn't the only route to improved child care quality. This is an important consideration, because rising costs are starting to drive low- and middle-income families out of Minnesota's child care center market. They're instead turning to relatives or neighbors, or to licensed home day cares (which the Star Tribune has found to have higher rates of deaths and safety problems), or to potentially illegal and unlicensed home day cares that have no oversight or state safety protections at all.
Interestingly enough, Minnesota's ranking as second least affordable wasn't matched with a comparable quality score. The state only ranked 18th on Child Care Aware's quality measure.