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Jackie Benoit-Petrich: Child care is necessary, and deserves public funding

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Jackie Benoit-Petrich, Executive Director of Civic League Day Nursery
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For 38 years, I have been in child care in one way or another — as a mother, teacher, advocate, director and grandmother. I am currently the director at Civic League Day Nursery in Rochester. We opened our doors in 1930 as a woman-led, pioneering effort to bring quality care to children of working parents. And we’ve been doing just that for 91 years.

You’ve probably read the headlines or heard on the news that parents are unable to find affordable child care. This is not an exaggeration. We, like others, have an extremely long waitlist for all ages. Many families easily wait one and a half to two years to even get a spot.

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We are not, however, busting at the seams. Our child care center is licensed for 84 children. But currently we only have 60 students enrolled. So that means we have room for 24 more children, right? No. In fact, we are actually moving to a five-classroom model instead of a six-classroom model as the result of a child care system that doesn’t work. It is not working for anyone — not for parents who pay too much, not for teachers who are paid too little, and not for providers who are struggling to make ends meet.

At Civic League, we not only take care of our kids, we take care of our staff. We offer benefits, which is very rare for most any center in the state. It’s still not nearly enough for the work they do, but it is impossible for us to offer more. Ninety-one percent of Civic League’s income is generated by parent fees and 90% of our expenses are staff wages and benefits. Our rates are competitive and among the lowest and still difficult for families to afford.

Parent fees already have to be increased annually to cover the rising costs of operations. To make child care work, to be able to fill those 24 spots and keep our six classrooms open to serve families, we need to pay teachers a living wage. Kindergarten teachers in Minnesota average $61,830 per year whereas child care teachers average $33,000 (and those are the ones making $16 an hour!). The only way to bridge that gap is public funding. 

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We publicly fund K-12 education. Why don’t we treat early childhood in the same way? Because child care is so often seen as babysitting, or not real work. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Our classrooms are filled with caring staff and happy children, eager to learn. We consistently send our children off to kindergarten with 100% readiness! Better outcomes for kids have innumerable benefits for society. 

The data could not be more clear, yet the Minnesota Legislature closed out its session this spring with exactly zero dollars allotted to fund child care. To be fair, the Senate blocked nearly every attempt by the House to fund anything with the $9.3 billion surplus — not child care, not education, not long-term care facilities, not roads and bridges. Nothing.

All of these things have been underfunded for decades. The excuse that we do not have the resources to fund necessary programs is tired, worn, and simply false. We do have the resources — and if everyone paid their fair share, we’d have more than enough resources to fully fund child care and so much more.

A fully funded child care system would allow child care providers to pay teachers the living wages they deserve. It would allow us to have our classrooms full of smiling children whose parents and caregivers are not stressed about how to afford child care. It would give parents the opportunity to make decisions about their own careers without the constraints of whether they can pay for child care. It would give every child a great start from birth (Achievement gaps start to form at birth!).

Child care is a backbone of our society. It is arguably one of the most important pieces of our economy. Without it, millions of parents cannot work. It is past time that we supported this necessary public good with the public funding it needs. I will be voting this fall for leaders who know the value of funding child care and pledge to make it happen.

Jackie Benoit-Petrich is the director at Civic League Day Nursery in Rochester and a leader with the Kids Count On Us coalition, which is made up of more than 500 community based child care providers across the state.

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