For parents, children, and communities, quality child care is critically important, and in Olmsted County there aren’t nearly enough quality child care opportunities available. This represents a crisis that must be addressed by both state and community leaders as soon as possible.

For parents, the availability of quality early care and education programs (ECE) empowers them to work and support their family, or get needed education or training. For the community, it builds the foundation for social stability, and economic prosperity, while saving tax payer dollars in the long run. For children, it helps them get prepared for success in school, the workforce, and life.

Unfortunately, however, Minnesota faces two early care and education-related crises. First, Minnesota has some of the worst education achievement gaps in the nation. Achievement gaps are differences in proficiency measured between groups of children of various racial, ethnic and income groups. Those gaps can be measured as early as age 1, so they need to be addressed early in life before they get larger and more difficult to close.

At the same time, about 35,000 low-income Minnesota children under age 5 can’t access quality early education programs. That early learning "opportunity gap" is one of the root causes of our achievement gap problem.

Second, recent analysis by the University of Minnesota finds that in most parts of Minnesota there is a serious shortage of quality programs. In Olmsted County there are only about three quality slots available for every 10 children younger than 5. The situation is even worse in nearby counties.

In other words, about seven out of every 10 area parents face a shortage of quality programs. At best, they don’t have an ideal number of choices. At worst, they have a full-blown family crisis where they can’t find the quality programs their children need, and some parents consequently can’t hold a job to support their family or get needed education and training.

This quality early education shortage is also hurting Minnesota employers, many of whom are struggling to find enough workers during a time of historically high employment rates.

Because parents in all communities throughout Minnesota face similar challenges, in the fall of 2018 a number of statewide groups came together to form an Early Care and Education Crisis Work Group. Among the statewide groups represented are the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the early education-focused nonprofits Think Small and Close Gaps by 5, the Minnesota Business Partnership, and the Minnesota Child Care Association.

Experts from these groups collaborated to learn more about the nature of the problem. They then formed a list of policy recommendations, which they shared with Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Legislature.

The recommendations are detailed in a 20-page report. They include proposals to 1.) invest in flexible Early Learning Scholarships for 35,000 low-income Minnesota children who can’t access quality ECE programs; 2.) improve the supply of quality child care providers; and 3.) reform and better coordinate existing early care and education funding streams to make them work better Minnesota families.

Offering more scholarships is particularly important. To address the achievement gap crisis and the early learning opportunity gaps at their roots, scholarships expand access to quality Parent Aware-rated programs for low-income children. To address the shortage, the expansion of scholarships incentivizes the addition of quality slots. That benefits families of all income levels, now and into the future.

It’s also important for state leaders to keep the Parent Aware quality rating and improvement system strong. For licensed child care providers who volunteer to participate, Parent Aware helps them adopt evidence-based kindergarten-readiness best practices. That means children benefit from the best practices they need to get prepared for school.

During the 2019 legislative session, the governor and Legislature didn’t act on the Work Group’s non-partisan recommendations. The 2020 session needs to be more constructive. The members of our work group stand ready to work with leaders from both political parties to adopt these recommendations during the 2020 legislative session. Minnesota’s future depends on it.