Minnesota child care tends to be good — and expensive. That means that high-quality child care and preschool are also in short supply, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and sparsely populated portions of the state.
In previous years, recognition that those circumstances spell trouble for the state's economy as well as for families and children has been spotty at the Legislature. Fortunately, that's changing. Last week, House Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt appointed a "select committee on affordable child care" and announced that it would conduct statewide hearings in February to probe the problem and consider remedies. It's to be headed by a former child care provider, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria.
We'll take that as reason for hope that a better day may be dawning for Minnesotans burdened by child care costs that often exceed the cost of public college tuition — and that bipartisan cooperation might help make it so.
Last session, Republicans and DFLers came together on a strategy to both offer more need-based scholarships for high-quality preschool and enable more school districts to become preschool providers. This should be the year when a similar coalition emerges to address the everyday, full-day needs of the young children of working parents.
The case for help is strong. Center-based care costs for both infants and 4-year-olds in Minnesota ranked the fourth least affordable among the 50 states in the most recent analysis by the advocacy group Child Care Aware of America. Center-based infant care averaged $14,366 per year in Minnesota; home-based care was still pricey at $7,882 a year.
Costs that high may be keeping some Minnesota parents out of the workforce. Minnesota has long been a national leader in workforce participation by both genders. But state demographer Susan Brower recently told a legislative panel that high child care costs explain why more than one in three Latina and one in four African-American mothers of young children are not working outside the home, compared with one in five women with young children in the total population.
Minnesota needs as much worker participation as it can get to stay economically healthy. Growth in the state's working-age population is forecast to stall in the next 15 years. If employers aren't already asking lawmakers to help them keep young parents on the job, they will be soon.
What's more, the children of working families deserve the kind of care that prepares them well for kindergarten and beyond. Helping families afford consistent care in environments that enhance learning serves the whole state well.
Two strategies strike us as promising. One: Rebuild and improve a long-standing federal/state child care assistance program for low-income households that was badly depleted during the state's budget struggle a dozen years ago. At last count, that "basic sliding fee" program served only about 8,000 families and had more than 7,000 on its waiting list. At a time of state budget surplus, a list that long is unconscionable.
That program is due for a tuneup for another reason. Minnesota is under new federal pressure to require higher standards and more accountability from child care providers. To the extent possible, tax dollars should be a lever for improving child care quality for all.
Two: Enlarge the state's child and dependent-care tax credit to help more working families pay for child care. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a major expansion of that credit in 2015, stretching it to reach 92,000 more families than the 38,000 currently eligible and costing the state treasury $100 million over two years. For some families, that credit would translate to a 20 percent discount on annual child care costs.
A scaled-down, $35 million version of that idea sponsored by Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, wound up in the House Republican tax bill, which is awaiting action in a conference committee. That suggests that legislators' election-year appetite for a tax cut might align nicely with the moral imperative to do right by all children, regardless of means, and the economic imperative to maximize Minnesota's workforce. We're rooting for that win-win-win.