In a state that is increasingly short of workers, access to affordable, high-quality child care is essential to keeping parents on payrolls. “When child care thrives, our state thrives,” says state Rep. Mary Franson, a Republican from Alexandria and a former child care provider who heads a bipartisan Minnesota House select committee on affordable child care.
Unfortunately, child care is not thriving in too much of Greater Minnesota. With the fourth-highest cost in the nation for infants and 4-year-olds, according to a recent survey, high-quality care in Minnesota is unaffordable for too many working families. A state-federal subsidy program intended to assist them had nearly 7,000 families on its waiting list in January; skimpy state funding has pushed the program out of compliance with federal rules, putting continued federal funding at risk. In the 13 years since the strapped 2003 Legislature shrank the subsidy program, some 3,000 home-based providers have closed their doors.
In recent months, Franson’s committee conducted seven hearings in Greater Minnesota in search of remedies. Apparently, it sought only low-cost ones. No dollar figure was attached to the recommendations the committee brought to the Legislature this week — even though one of the ideas is for a state-administered grant program to help local communities increase the supply of child care through business start-up or expansion funding.
Leaders in the Republican-controlled House say they may yet attach a state appropriation to that promising idea. They should. The committee’s other suggestions would streamline and standardize the state’s child care licensure process and are worth doing. Its call for a new House-Senate legislative task force to continue examining the issue in advance of the 2017 legislative session also deserves heed.
But the committee’s failure to ask for an increase in child care subsidies for low-income families is a glaring omission — one the Legislature must correct if it’s serious about giving every child a strong start and every potential worker an opportunity to contribute to the state’s economy.
Franson argues that fully funding the subsidy program would not ease the child care shortage in Greater Minnesota. That may be true if full funding is defined simply as eliminating the waiting list for subsidies. Those subsidies have not kept pace with the cost of child care, and they don’t cover its full cost in most places. They likely aren’t rich enough at current provider reimbursement rates to attract more providers.
But if full funding also means increasing the reimbursement rate for providers — which has not happened since 2011 — chances are good that the supply of child care will grow in response to improved market demand.
That potential is on display on Penn Avenue N. in Minneapolis. There, a handsome New Horizon Academy opened in November in what had been a poorly served neighborhood. It quickly filled to capacity, because families in the Northside Achievement Zone have access to both child care subsidies and government-funded early-learning scholarships. New Horizon CEO Chad Dunkley attests that the nationally acclaimed provider would not have located in that distressed neighborhood but for those programs.
While few Minnesota neighborhoods are as needy as north Minneapolis, many would benefit from a similar infusion of assistance. Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending $28 million in the coming fiscal year to both comply with the subsidy program’s federal requirements and increase the provider reimbursement rate. Both moves would cost the state more in coming years — but that’s because they represent a spending catch-up that’s long overdue.
The Legislature should not miss the chance the current state surplus affords to make child care more affordable for more families. If lawmakers can use that spending to encourage providers to improve the educational value of their services, so much the better.