The COVID-19 pandemic has reached every corner of daily life. But in one arena, it’s proven calamitous by snatching hope from thousands of disadvantaged Minnesota children in critical early childhood education programs.
These preschool efforts — targeting children under age 5 — are being devastated by the epidemic and demand state government intervention. Minnesota has the means to answer the emergency, if it has the will.
Even before the virus hit, only about 16,000 of the state’s estimated 51,000 young children in poverty received scholarships for early-ed programs. The number of children left behind was a crisis, in and of itself. Minnesota’s school achievement gap is among the largest in the nation.
But now, a second emergency threatens even that limited effort to giving disadvantaged young children a hope of being ready for kindergarten and beyond.
A survey of 629 Minnesota early-ed programs found a third were so strapped for funds that they would not survive “without significant public investment and support that would allow them to compensate and retain staff, pay rent, and cover other fixed costs.”
Twenty-two percent said they couldn’t withstand closing two weeks without substantial government aid. The same percentage had no idea how long they could endure closing.
That was a month ago.
Nearly half of Minnesota early-ed programs have parents who cannot afford to pay fees or copays. More than half the programs have lost income as parents have lost jobs or suffered reduced hours of work.
Early childhood programs across the nation face a similar fate. Nearly 50% of 11,500 child care providers told the National Association for the Education of Young Children that they won’t survive a closure of more than two weeks. Another 25% said they didn’t know how long they could remain closed and hope to reopen in the absence of financial support.
“If we had numbers like that about some key sector of the economy, there would be a rush to save it from collapse,” said Ericca Maas, executive director of Close Gaps by 5, a Minnesota early-ed advocacy group.
“We’ve done that many times in this country,” she said. “We should do no less for a sector that is so important to the economy and our collective future.”
That theme is echoed by another longtime proponent of early-childhood education, Art Rolnick, senior fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
“For the sake of Minnesota’s critical workers, our current and future workforce, and, most important, the well-being of infants and toddlers, I urge the state to increase its funding for early childhood education,” he said.
The expected Minnesota state budget surplus of $1.5 billion, millions of which Democrats hoped to allocate to early education, has eroded as businesses have closed by the thousands and tens of thousands of the state’s residents have lost income and jobs.
Gov. Tim Walz and legislators, on both sides of the aisle, modestly increased money for early-ed scholarships in March. But that was for years ahead, not the here and now. A billion dollars in federal aid is expected to shore up Minnesota’s finances soon. Tens of millions should be earmarked to rescue early childhood education programs.
Advocates stress the move would benefit everyone. Many hospital cleaners, medical assistants, grocery clerks and other essential workers are parents of young children in desperate need of a head start in life.
Aid to those vulnerable children will benefit not only their families, but the rest of us who rely on those besieged essential workers for our own survival.