I know the Legislature hears from lots of people in need. I’m sure that must make it challenging to prioritize state funding. But I’d like to make a plea for helping Minnesota’s youngest first, because they are the most vulnerable among us and have the most to gain and lose.
To help you understand my thinking, I want to share my own story. I am a licensed social worker. In the past, I have served as the director of the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center and as program manager of the Families Moving Forward Family Shelter. In those roles, I have continually seen the desperate need to help low-income families access high-quality child care and early learning programs for their children.
Early care and education are absolutely life-changing for families in need. First, parents need quality early learning programs to free them to do the things they need to do to support their children, such as work outside the home and/or get education and job training. This allows families to become self-sustaining over the long run.
Second, the children themselves need to have their fast-developing brains stimulated in quality early learning programs. School is essential at any age, but it is scientifically proven that the impact of education in the first five years of life can be huge and life changing. Our youngest children need to develop key foundational skills, so they can build on them to succeed later in school and life.
When families can’t afford high-quality early learning programs, children all too often fall behind in their development and learning. That causes them to struggle to catch up with children from families who take such programs for granted. If you want to know how we can become a more equitable society, it all starts with closing these opportunity gaps in the earliest years.
In addition to my professional life, I’ve also seen the need for quality early care and education in my personal life. Like so many others, I am a grandparent serving as a parent to two beautiful young children, Zander and Milan. Two members of my family were unable to care for their children, so my retired husband and I stepped forward and adopted them. As a social worker, I observed that this “grandparent as parent” situation is increasingly common, something state leaders should keep in mind as they make policy.
While my husband and I take great pride and joy in helping these wonderful young children, playing that grandparent as parent role at our stage of life is challenging. My husband is retired and on a fixed income; I worked full-time to make ends meet. We’ve already raised five children of our own. So our resources are limited. This winter, a serious bout with COVID-19 also complicated things, because it made it impossible for me to work for a while.
In addition to financial struggles, these children need specialized help that we simply aren’t equipped to provide. Both have special needs; one of the children is hearing impaired, which has delayed his speech development.
Thanks to state-funded Early Learning Scholarships, both Milan and Zander have been able to attend New Horizon Academy in Coon Rapids, a high-quality early learning program. Because of that early learning lifeline, they are getting the special help they need.
We are so grateful that they are benefitting in so many ways from that excellent early learning opportunity. Every day, we see that they are learning amazing new things. Legislators and Gov. Tim Walz: You should be proud of what you are doing by supporting those programs.
At the same time, the programs could do better by these children. By far the biggest problem is that there simply isn’t enough help available. There are 35,000 low-income Minnesota children who can’t access quality early learning programs because of the lack of state funding.
That’s a tragedy. In every corner of Minnesota, young children deserve the same life-saving help that is changing my adopted children’s lives.
In addition to insufficient funding, scholarships have a per child cap that is way too low to cover the cost of full-time care, which often causes children to get cut off from their care and learning and puts families in crisis. Fortunately, a small adjustment was made last year, but more improvement is needed.
Again, I really do understand that the Legislature and governor have a lot of pressing needs to consider. As a social worker, I see those needs up close and personal every day. Still, it’s difficult for me to imagine any cause more important than helping Minnesota’s most vulnerable children at a tender stage of life when they must be developing the education foundation needed over their entire lives. We should put these disadvantaged children at the very top of the state government funding priority list.