Union educators join effort to expand child care, early ed

Access to early care and education is good for children, parents and communities. But the shortage of child care providers in Minnesota has gone from bad to worse during the pandemic.

Union educators are putting their weight behind a push to address the child care crisis this legislative session, teaming up with Head Start advocates, child care providers and parents who want a portion of the state’s $7.7 billion budget surplus invested in early education.

In a virtual press conference Tuesday, Maplewood child care teacher Mary Solheim said change won’t happen in the industry unless stakeholders come together and demand it.

“We need a unified understanding of each other, an understanding that child care, early learning and public education can coexist together because we are equally important in the lives of our families,” Solheim said. “Children need education, children need care and children need to be educated by caring people.”

Solheim is a leader in the advocacy group Kids Count On Us. Its agenda includes capping child care costs at 7% of a family’s income and giving workers in the industry better wages and career opportunities.

Greta Holupchinski, a Head Start home visitor in Ramsey County, said it’s time for Minnesota to start recognizing the importance of child care and early education to the state’s economy – and investing accordingly.

“The benefits of accessible child care affect everyone in a community, not just the families and kids,” Holupchinski said. “We’re currently seeing a huge worker shortage, and lack of child care is one of those causes.”

Minnesota was short nearly 80,000 child care slots before COVID-19, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Federal employment data shows the industry lost about a third of its workers at the outset of the pandemic, and employment remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Kirsten Ragatz, a former preschool and kindergarten teacher in Minneapolis and St. Paul, said she retired early two years ago, in part, because of a “lack of respect for teachers at every level.”

“Now that we are in global pandemic, teachers are leaving the profession at very high rates, and no one who has worked in a school or child care center is surprised,” she said.

Attracting workers to the field is a challenge, researchers say, given long hours and wages that often are too low to meet the cost of living – even for positions that require post-secondary degrees, like preschool teachers.

But availability isn’t the only barrier families seeking child care face. The average cost of full-time care ranges from $12,000 to over $15,000 in Minnesota.

LaTanya Hughes, a personal care attendant who manages two group homes, said she applied for child care assistance from the state, but was denied because her income was too high. When she found a child care center that would accept her 5-year-old, Hughes had to take another job to cover the fees, only increasing her child care costs further.

“Sometimes I feel like the working people are penalized the most,” Hughes said.

Even for families who qualify, the state child care assistance program lacks sufficient funding, resulting in long waitlists in some areas of the state.

Gov. Tim Walz set out to change that last week. He proposed spending $2.6 billion over the next three years to fund state’s subsidy program in full, eliminate waitlists and raise reimbursement rates for providers. The plan would also provide direct grants to keep child care centers and family providers open.

Advocates at the press conference called the governor’s proposal a necessary first step, and they urged legislators to act during the session that began Monday.

Mercedes Lee, a member of the St. Paul Federation of Educators who has taught kindergarten and second grade, said the most important return on an investment in early care and education is the opportunity it provides children.

“It was always incredibly apparent to me who had experiences with early education and child care prior to coming to kindergarten, and who did not,” Lee said.

“Early education matters, and if we truly care about our children, we need to prioritize funding and resourcing early education. And we need a strong workforce that is well supported through wages, benefits and educational opportunities, so that they can give their full selves to the children they are educating.”

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