Can it finally be true? More state support for child care and early education appears to have landed at or near the top of priority lists for both political parties in the Minnesota Legislature.
I'm not sure whether to be happy to share that observation, or disgusted that it took nearly a half-century of advocacy and the economic devastation of a pandemic to make it so.
"You've gotta go with gratified," counseled Art Rolnick, the Minneapolis Fed's retired senior economist and a nation-leading authority on the benefits of high-quality early education for at-risk kids. "It's always better to look forward, not back," he said.
I admire that attitude. Ordinarily, I like to think, I would share it.
But promising as its position seems at the 2021 Legislature, a boost in support for the state's youngest learners isn't over the finish line yet. Neither is another family-friendly policy that's languished for nearly as long but also looks alive this year: a state-mandated, insurance-styled program of paid family and medical leave.
That's why it strikes me that just now — fittingly, during Women's History Month — the promoters of these worthy ideas might not mind a little zip of moral indignation. That's what long exposure to these issues has instilled in me.
Why has it taken so long for Minnesota and the rest of this country to extend more meaningful support to working adults who are also raising children and/or caring for vulnerable family members? If that question has conjured in your mind an image of one such busy working person and she is female, you already know the answer.
America has been achingly slow to adapt its institutions to the massive societal change that began a half-century ago, when women began to enter the nation's paid workforce in far greater numbers and in more varied roles than ever before (save for the rare and fleeting opportunities presented in 1942-45). The change was particularly evident in Minnesota, which soon boasted the nation's highest percentage of women in the labor force. This state's employers built an economy uncommonly dependent on a high-quality workforce in the last third of the 20th century. They were glad to draw workers from an enlarged talent pool.
But most employers weren't much interested in how their employees managed other responsibilities of adulthood — the tasks typically regarded (or disregarded) as "women's work." And for far too long, some politicians resisted taxpayer-funded early education as unwelcome interference in a family prerogative. (President Richard Nixon referred to "Sovietizing" America's youth as he vetoed a pioneering early ed bill sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Minnesota's own Sen. Walter Mondale in 1971.)
That old culture-war argument isn't much heard today, though I'm suspicious about the old tapes playing in some politicians' heads. More recently, state budget woes conspired with competition between two forms of state support for young children — quality-based early education scholarships for the needy and child care subsidies for the not-quite-as needy — to keep funding tight and waiting lists long for both kinds of support.
Then came COVID. The resulting recession's disproportionate impact on women has been well-documented. What may be less well-known is how COVID socked a Minnesota child care industry that was already on its heels, especially in greater Minnesota.
An economy-stifling child care shortage has developed outside the metro area, where today's child care providers can accommodate 20,000 fewer children than were served in the same region in 2000, the St. Peter-based Center for Rural Policy and Development reported last month. Some 4,000 licensed child-care spaces were lost in 2020 alone.
Driving that change: Home-based licensed providers can no longer afford to stay in business — not with the stingy subsidies the state has been providing to their lower-income clients.
Legislators of both parties have caught on to the need to reverse that trend. So have early ed scholarship advocates like Rolnick. He reports a truce in the dispute over whether the state should concentrate on scholarships, which can only be used at child care facilities of proven quality, or subsidies, which can flow to licensed providers regardless of their quality rating.
"If they raise the child care subsidies, that's fine with us," Rolnick told me. "We can layer a scholarship on top of that."
But Rolnick, who helped design Minnesota's early learning scholarships 15 years ago, still makes a strong case for scholarships.
"Think of it," he said. "You get a letter from the governor saying your child gets a scholarship. 'We're going to have your back. We're going to help you choose a quality program.' Suddenly, you're empowered." You might even become a better parent, something research says the state would do well to encourage.
Richer child care subsidies would likely slow or stop the exodus of home-based child care providers from the field. Richer scholarships — up from $7,500 for most qualifying children today — would give providers more incentive to ramp up quality.
Do both, and legislators will spur this state's recovery from the COVID "she-cession." They'll also show skeptics like me that they've left misogynistic ideas about the value of "women's work" back in the 20th century.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer and the author of the 2014 book, "Her Honor: Rosalie Wahl and the Minnesota Women's Movement." She is at email@example.com.