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Statewide View: Achievement gaps, child-care shortage can be fixed together

Minnesota faces two urgent crises that are distinct from each other but related.

First, Minnesota has some of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, gaps that open as early as 9 months of age for the most vulnerable children.

Second, we have a severe shortage of quality child-care programs in many parts of the state.

Jan KruchoskiThese dual crises pose serious threats to Minnesota's children, families, communities, taxpayers, and economy. To prevent the problems from growing much worse, they must be addressed now. The solutions must be coordinated to avoid alleviating one crisis while inadvertently aggravating the other.

Toward that end, this fall, a nonpartisan coalition of groups formed an Early Care and Education Crisis Work Group to recommend constructive, detailed policy solutions to Gov.-elect Tim Walz and bipartisan leaders in the Minnesota Legislature. The solutions-focused work group was made up of organizations with varying missions, such as the very different organizations represented by us.

Our report is detailed and multifaceted. You can read it in its entirety at thinksmall.org/crisis. Here are a few highlights.

It calls for better coordinating and making better use of current early-education resources. Last year, Minnesota's Office of the Legislative Auditor issued a report that found the state needed to better coordinate the multiple funding streams used to fund early care and education. Along with the recommendations, our work group report includes proposals for coordinating and streamlining these programs.

Our report also urges investment in quality improvement. We need to provide technical assistance to early care and education providers in the form of quality-improvement coaches, grants, and marketing. For providers who volunteer to improve, the nonprofit Parent Aware can help them adopt kindergarten-readiness best practices to better serve children.

Todd OtisWe know quality improvement is needed to close our toxic early-learning opportunity gaps, but it also can help ease our child-care shortage. For new startups, Parent Aware coaching and grants defray start-up costs and help build sustainable businesses. Research done by Think Small found that early-care-and-education programs that volunteered for Parent Aware were twice as likely to stay in business as other providers.

Finally, our report recommends investments to help low- and middle-income children access quality early-learning programs. Specifically, we recommend early-learning scholarships, a reformed version of the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), and/or an income-targeted child care tax credit.

With limited funds, we recommend helping the most vulnerable low-income children first since they are most likely to fall into achievement gaps and be unable to access quality programs on their own. After we help families who can't afford quality programs, leaders can move on to help families who struggle to do so.

Income-targeting is common sense, and it's supported by an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans. A 2015 Morris Leatherman survey found that about two-thirds (66 percent) of Minnesotans agreed that low-income children should be "the top priority for limited government funding for pre-kindergarten early-education services." In contrast, only 15 percent said "all children" should be the top priority for limited government funding.

Expanding access for tens of thousands of new early-care and education investments will do more than just narrow our worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps. It also will jump start new consumer demand for early-care-and-education programs, which will, in turn, incentivize expanding quality early-care-and-education programs in all regions of Minnesota.

After decades of researching and piloting approaches, we know what works. But to tackle these two pressing crises, we need to expand those services. We stand ready to work with state leaders from both major political parties in order to do that.

Jan Kruchoski of Chanhassen, Minn., is a principal at the CliftonLarsonAllen accounting firm and a former chairwoman of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce's board of directors. Todd Otis of Minneapolis is a public-affairs consultant and consult at the early learning-focused nonprofit organization Think Small. He's also a former DFL legislator and state party chairman. They wrote this for the News Tribune.

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