The Potluck

Minnesota researchers craft proposal to improve child care access

By: - May 13, 2021 3:32 pm

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Two University of Minnesota researchers say they’ve developed a plan to ensure all families have access to high-quality child care, regardless of income or employment.

The proposal from economists Elizabeth Davis and Aaron Sojourner, published Wednesday, calls for permanently expanding existing early childhood education programs, capping families’ spending based on income and creating a uniform set of quality standards. The researchers estimate this system would cost about $123 billion, which would be partly offset by economic gains for families and long-term advantages for children, especially low-income children.

Quality child care benefits children’s development in the short-term and is linked to lifelong positive effects on educational attainment, earnings, criminal activity and employment, experts say. It also allows more parents — especially women — to enter the workforce.

But more than half of families with young children in the U.S. lived in a child care desert before the pandemic, which worsened the situation. Plus, daycare is prohibitively expensive for many families. The average annual cost of care for a 4-year-old in Minnesota is $12,252, more than college tuition, according to the Economic Policy Institute. 

The U.S. doesn’t have a “system” of early childhood education so much as a fragmented landscape, Davis said in a recent panel about the proposal. Funding and regulations vary by state, resulting in unequal access and quality.

The U.S. spends less on young children than older kids, even though young children require more intensive care and their families tend to have lower incomes and more limited credit, according to the report. Public spending totaled $12,800 per elementary school student in 2019, compared to $2,800 per 3- or 4-year-old, and less than $500 per child under 3.

The early years of a child’s life are critical for brain development — about 80% of brain growth happens by age 3 — and can have long-lasting effects on their well-being. Development is influenced by genetics, nutrition and children’s experiences with other people.

This underinvestment, the researchers say, contributes to low wages and high turnover among child care workers, and limits opportunities for child care providers to improve their services.

The report suggests relying on two federal funding sources to improve early childhood education: Head Start and partnerships between state and the federal government.

This would create enough supply to serve a base number of children in each community and flexibility for families, while maintaining competition, according to the report. It would also ensure money is spent efficiently by holding all participating providers to the same quality standards.

Expanding Head Start and Early Head Start — early childhood education programs for low-income children under 5 — would make it a “real, meaningful option for all low-income families,” the proposal says. In 2018, 36% of eligible children ages 3-5 had access to Head Start, and 11% of eligible children under 3 had access, according to the National Head Start Association.

The state-federal partnerships would fund scholarships that families could use at qualified providers, as well as contracts with child care facilities or home-based providers based on a bidding process. 

Families should be guaranteed the right to early childhood education, just as they’re guaranteed the right to a K-12 education, the report says. Many states’ early childhood scholarship programs require parents to work a certain number of hours, but the proposal suggests removing employment mandates.

Families would pay for care based on a sliding scale that varies by region and takes into account family size and income.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.