Regardless of whether Congress eventually passes an adequate child care access program as part of its Build Back Better (BBB) legislation, the Minnesota Legislature needs to step in now. That's the bottom line when it comes to keeping Minnesota's commitment to having "the world's best workforce."

We must invest in our youngest, most vulnerable children and their struggling parents.

We need to find a way to help low-income children access quality early learning programs. Our most vulnerable children aren't getting the early learning opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. These opportunity gaps are part of the reason why, year after year, Minnesota has some of the nation's worst achievement gaps.

This has long been true, but it became a much more urgent problem during the pandemic when so many disadvantaged children missed critically important time learning and developing socialization skills in stimulating early learning environments. This has been dubbed the "COVID slide," which puts them farther behind even before they start school.

Also, our economic recovery during this pandemic depends on employers being able to find more workers, and this child care help will free more parents to enter the workforce.

The prospect of Congress passing its child care legislation is very uncertain. Even if they do eventually act, federal assistance likely won't reach these children for at least 18 months after the fact.

That's because the federal government must first develop a very complex set of program guidelines for the states, states must then develop their strategies based on federal guidelines, the federal government must review and approve the states' proposed plans, and the states must distribute help to eligible families.

Not everyone has the luxury of time, such as the nearly 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age 5 who can't access quality early learning programs. For that huge group of left-behind kids, achievement gaps are already opening as early as age 1. The later early learning help arrives, the further behind their more privileged peers they get, and the less likely they are to catch up.

Child care providers definitely don't have time to wait on Washington. Many are on the brink of financial collapse. If tens of thousands of newly funded Early Learning Scholarships get funded, many of these providers will be able to expand sites and slots. This new demand will stimulate new supply and help ease the child care shortage.

At the same time, if no new help is passed by the Legislature, too many child care providers will close their doors. This will make the child care shortage even worse than it is now.

Minnesota's economy definitely doesn't have time to wait on Washington. Employers and consumers desperately need more moms and dads re-entering the workforce now, not 18 months or more from now.

Around the state, employers have a common lament: "I can't find workers!" There is absolutely no doubt that expanded access to child care help will free up many parents to re-enter the workforce.

Fortunately, the Minnesota Legislature is in an extremely strong fiscal position to address those near-term needs. Minnesota has about $1 billion in unspent COVID relief funds and a $7 billion state budget surplus. The annual cost helping those children is a fraction of that amount, about $0.4 billion.

Beyond its fiscal position, the Legislature is also in a strong political position to help our kids most in need. There is rare bipartisan, bicameral agreement in support of investing in Early Learning Scholarships, something that probably can't be said for similar social service programs.

We're well aware that the Legislature is being asked to address many very worthy causes. But economists such as the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis's Art Rolnick and Rob Gruenwald, and Nobel-Prize-winner James Heckman, say that they don't know of another public investment that produces a higher return-on-investment for taxpayers than investments in quality early learning programs targeted to low-income children under age 5.

Beyond the economic argument, the equity argument is at least as compelling. Through no fault of their own, these children were born into poverty and lack the learning opportunities other children are getting. The time to address Minnesota's glaring inequity problems is at this early stage of life.

We hope that Congress eventually passes significant child care assistance. But we can't depend on that. The Minnesota Legislature needs to rescue today's left-behind, low-income children who won't benefit even if that congressional legislation does pass in the coming months.

Sondra Samuels is president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone. Ken Powell is vice chair of Close Gaps by 5, and former chairman of the board and CEO of General Mills.