There is a lot of concern these days about Minnesota’s “child care deserts,” or communities experiencing a shortage of quality child care programs. This is a crisis that impacts more than just families with young children, because there can be no economic recovery if there is insufficient child care available to allow parents and guardians to re-enter the workforce.
These child care deserts are disproportionately located in greater Minnesota, and over the years I have learned a lot about supporting child care in greater Minnesota. For more than three decades, I was part of a team that helped bring high-quality early learning programs to the White Earth Indian Reservation. Since then, I am honored to be helping other tribes around the state with this issue. White Earth and other reservations are similar to many places that are currently child care deserts — remote, sparsely populated, and home to many low-income families.
How can Minnesota leaders help families living in those child care deserts? These are some of the things I have seen that can quickly help a community add capacity of quality early care and education programs.
First, programs that help low-income families access early learning are key, like Early Learning Scholarships, in which Minnesota helps pay for high quality child care and early education programs. For child care providers to retain and expand their capacity, they need to know that they will have new customers. An expanded number of scholarships funded by the state would instantly create new customers. That would give programs the confidence and financial stability they need to stay in business or add capacity.
If our leaders only invest in one thing, I would suggest these scholarships as the top priority. For parents, scholarships are flexible and portable enough to fit their lives. For our most vulnerable children, scholarships guarantee high-quality programs over multiple years. For child care providers who are weighing whether to expand, scholarships immediately generate new and predictable sources of customers, which greatly strengthens their financial position.
Throughout Minnesota, there are 35,000 low-income children who can’t access quality early learning programs. Imagine what would happen if we empowered those 35,000 children with scholarships. Imagine the instant boost that would give to child care small businesses in greater Minnesota, businesses which are usually run by women and often disproportionately employ people of color. Scholarships are a huge part of the solution to the child care shortage problem.
Second, we also most help more providers access the “Parent Aware” quality improvement system, and reward them for their participation. Parent Aware is a state-funded program that offers any willing child care provider coaches and grants to help them adopt kindergarten-readiness best practices.
This quality improvement support is not only essential to help young children get prepared for school, it also strengthens child care businesses. The non-profit group Think Small has found that Parent Aware-rated family child care providers were twice as likely to have stayed in business than programs that don’t choose to participate in Parent Aware.
The kindergarten-readiness best practices supported by Parent Aware coaches are critically important for children. Research by Child Trends, a think tank focused on children’s issues, found that Minnesota children in Parent Aware-rated programs are making significant gains on kindergarten-readiness measures.
We’re talking about critical skills like vocabulary, persistence, executive function, early math skills, phonics and social skills. These are the things children will need to succeed later in school, and throughout their lives, and about 100,000 children per year are benefiting in these Parent Aware-rated programs.
Best of all, that same research found that low-income children were making the biggest gains of all. Because of Parent Aware, the early learning opportunity gap is at long last narrowing
Beyond those exciting benefits for our most vulnerable children, those Think Small findings show that Parent Aware also makes programs stronger and more resilient. To help more programs get strong enough to expand, we need to fund better Parent Aware outreach, supports and rewards.
By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that only large or urban programs can adopt those Parent Aware best practices. I’ll admit that I initially worried about that. But after a lot of hard work on White Earth, we ultimately had 91% of our providers participating. Because we did it on White Earth, I believe it can be done anywhere, particularly if the program’s rewards are strengthened.
Finally, some child care entrepreneurs could also benefit from accessible and affordable financing to help them add capacity. State and local governments should help with that, too.
All of those things — more Scholarships, better Parent Aware supports and additional start-up financing — require state resources. But with a $1.6 billion state budget surplus — and significant additional federal assistance likely arriving soon — we can do this. This must be a top priority, because Minnesota can’t build a stronger and more resilient economy until it first builds a stronger and more resilient child care sector.