Karin Swenson: State dollars are needed ensure sufficient child care and early education programs
In Minnesota, the average wage for child care workers is around $13 per hour. We cannot compete for teachers when starting wages for jobs with no experience are higher than that.
Decades. That’s how long the Minnesota Legislature has underfunded child care and early education.
It’s also how long those of us involved in child care and early education have been fighting to get the funding we need to run high-quality programs for all children in Minnesota, make it affordable for families, and pay teachers the wages they deserve. Minnesota finally has a chance to change this with the omnibus bills currently being negotiated in the Legislature.
As experts in our field, we’d like to weigh in on what we absolutely need to see included — retention payments to hire and retain teachers funded at the level proposed by Gov. Walz.
When you hear about a child care shortage, the issue behind that is a workforce shortage. The workforce shortage being experienced across the state is amplified in child care.
In Minnesota, the average wage for child care workers still hovers around $13 per hour. We cannot compete for teachers when starting wages for jobs with no experience are higher than what we can afford to pay highly experienced teachers.
Across the state, child care classrooms currently sit empty because child care providers cannot find staff. That leaves families without child care. We cannot find staff because we cannot afford to raise wages.
Our funding comes from the tuition families pay for child care, and tuition is already more than most families can comfortably afford. Yet without public funding to maintain and increase staff compensation, we have no other choice but to raise rates for families.
We need to make child care a valued industry to work in. That starts by paying teachers.
This is where the Minnesota Legislature has a chance to make a huge impact. During the pandemic, child care centers received stabilization grants that kept most of us afloat. The grants were used to increase teacher compensation so that we could hire and retain teachers.
These grants were cut in half this month and are scheduled to stop altogether at the end of June. This puts us in a very precarious position. Those grants were keeping us at sea level. Already the decrease is tipping us in the wrong direction financially, and many child care centers will soon be underwater again.
Gov. Walz proposed continuing this funding as “retention payments” that are to be used 100% for hiring and retaining staff. But neither the House nor the Senate has these payments in their budget bills at the level the governor proposed. They are unfortunately proposing much less in their budgets, which will be a huge blow to child care in Minnesota.
Without full funding of retention payments, we will need to either cut staff compensation or raise rates for parents. Neither is feasible and both are terrible options that will lead to fewer child care spots across Minnesota communities across the state that are already struggling with a lack of child care.
The Great Start for All Minnesota Children Task Force released their recommendations in early February for transforming child care in Minnesota so that it is affordable for families, high quality for children, and is a career that pays a living wage for teachers. We are calling on the Minnesota Legislature to do the very least, which is to fully fund retention payments so we can keep teacher wages and compensation where they currently are so we can keep those teachers.
Child care workers are literally the workforce behind the workforce. Without them, thousands of Minnesotans would not be able to go to work. Supporting the child care workforce so that we have child care at all is an absolute must. We urge the House and Senate to do what is necessary to make it happen this session.
Karin Swenson is executive director of Meadow Park Preschool and Child Care Center in Rochester.
The column is co-signed by:
- Teresa Bahr, owner and director, Early Advantage Developmental Child Care Center
- Jackie Benoit-Petrich, executive director, Civic League Day Nursery
- Michelle Strain, director, Kids Come 1st Children’s Center SW
- Kayla Gannon, early childhood supporter
- Missi Mathison, director, Kids Come 1st Children’s Center SW
- Heather Kahl, Early Childhood Education Center director and teacher
- Renae Loth-Birch, owner/CEO, Discover Magical Moments
- Christina Valdez, director, Listos Preschool and Childcare, Rochester