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Panel: Are we failing our future?

child care, blooming prairie, steele county, rural
Several members of the local media covered an event held last week in Blooming Prairie that featured a panel discussion about the state of child care in rural Minnesota. The participants included past, present and hopeful politicians from the local, county, state and national level. Staff photo by Kay Fate
Discussion addresses rural childcare needs
By
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

You wouldn’t have known it by simply driving by, but a veritable think tank gathered last week in Blooming Prairie.

It included many politicians – past, present and hopeful – as well as experts in a number of fields, but there was just one focus: the state of child care in rural Minnesota.

The discussion focused on public policy and support surrounding the topic, with some deliberate timing.

The Minnesota Legislature began its 2024 session on Monday, meaning the issue will be top-of-mind for Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, Rep. Natalie Zeleznikar, R-Fredenberg Township and Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, who were all at the table.

Kevin Burkart, a member of the Prior Lake City Council, moderated the event, which was hosted by Leo Augusta Children’s Academy of Blooming Prairie.

Once the owner of a multi-million-dollar marketing company, Burkart now helps everyone from corporations to non-profits find innovative ways to overcome adversity, embrace change, and grow their businesses with what he calls “breakthrough performance.”

“It’s obvious we have a crisis in child care, not only in Minnesota, but across the entire nation,” said Amy Hinzmann, board chairwoman of LACA. “The child care industry has been broken for decades, and it’s finally reared its ugly head,” especially post-pandemic.

“We had a lot of people leaving the workforce, and we lost a lot of child care workers,” she said. “In an industry that’s struggling so much, we have to get behind it and support it. There are children that don’t have anywhere to go.”

According to the Center for Rural Policy and Development, child care shortages stretch across 80 counties in greater Minnesota, where 90% of children under age 5 have both parents working. Statewide, that number is about 76%.

LACA is not a daycare, but a child care and education center.

“We want to do more for our children, prepare them, so they’re really ready for kindergarten and for success,” Hinzmann said. “Young families are struggling to find childcare; many are not getting back into the workforce because they can’t find affordable, quality child care. We’re trying to do something different here.”

Perhaps the biggest issue – and the group discussed eight – is the lack of funding for families, incentives for them to work and be able to find the care they need.

The middle class, specifically, is being left behind, said Zeleznikar, whose district is in northern Minnesota.

The state has a Child Care Assistance Program for low income families, but there are minimal federal tax credits offered.

There are programs for military families, limited early learning scholarships, and Head Start programs, but as Nelson said multiple times during the event, “We cannot have a one-size-fits-all model that’s going to be effective for a very diverse Minnesota … To think that one model is going to be successful for the entire state is very short-sighted.

“We can’t just rely on the state government,” she said. “We can’t just rely on the federal government. We need benefactors, we need non-profits … there is more to do.”

Still, Nelson said, “there are so many competing needs,” all vying for any share of the budget surplus.

The latest report from the Minnesota Management and Budget officials predicts a $2.4 billion surplus for the current fiscal biennium.

Wraparound programs in school districts, including all-day, every-day 4-year-old preschool, come with a cost to families as well, but they inadvertently negatively impact the LACA education center, Hinzmann said.

In addition, those programs still leave a need for child care before and after the school day, on weekdays when there is no school, and during the summer. LACA hours are currently 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

School system funding doesn’t apply to LACA, even though it employs early learning educators and has an educational component.

Patty Harrelson, a child and family social services manager for Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, said in a time of increased need for both employment and child care, “there’s no way we can sustain or survive this way.

“We have to begin to tie employment and the seeking of employment to daycare,” she said.

Harrelson also took exception to the free meal program for any student, regardless of income, instituted last fall at all Minnesota schools. The initiative has surprised state leaders, who have acknowledged the free meals will cost a lot more than initially budgeted.

It will cost $81 million more than expected over the next two years, and $95 million in the two years after that.

“That’s giving kids who don’t necessarily need a free lunch, a free lunch,” Harrelson said. “That’s $95 million that could go to this (child care) crisis. Some of that stuff, just as a private citizen, is frustrating to me – not to mention in my job.”

Her agency oversees families in Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties.

The three-hour discussion wasn’t close to being enough time, the participants agreed, though there was a good consensus about top issues and possible ways to alleviate them. Building alliances will be key.

Gaining input from the rank and file – the people actually doing child care and dealing with myriad shortcomings – is high on the list, Mueller said.

So is inter-facility movement for those who work with the disabled and elderly, allowing employees to seamlessly shift their career focus. There is a common thread with those folks, Hinzmann said.

“Our employees have one thing in common,” she said. “When you page through their resumes, they are caregivers.”

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The Findings:

 

  1. Incentivize parents to work by increasing the child care tax credit.

 

  • Expand early learning scholarships from low-income families to include middle-income families.
  • Leverage public-private partnerships to support working families.
  • Provide tax incentives for rural businesses to subsidize child care.

 

  1.  Ease logistical challenges in rural Minnesota for working parents.

 

  • Establish parent-directed early learning scholarships that can be used at any facility.
  • Create efficiencies by sharing best practices across the state.
  • Avoid cliffs for subsidies; use incremental decreases – a “bridge” approach.
  • Review QRS. Avoid a single-model approach. Focus on outcome-based results.
  • Encourage alignment with local school districts for seamless service to children.

 

  1. Provide additional resources in classrooms. Stop operating by ratios.

 

  • Allocate special needs resources to early learning.
  • Move toward needs measurement vs ratio measurement.
  • Augment existing system with resources to close specific gaps.
  • Allow for flexibility.

 

  1. Create a desire for a child care career, increase retention and reduce burnout.

 

  • Consider annual retention bonuses.
  • Invest in early learning career training, similar to other trades.

 

  1. Rural child care opportunities for investments should be proportional to facility investments.

 

  • Grant criteria should be more broad and inclusive.
  • Support building of facilities via existing economic development channels.

 

  1. Recognize the unique challenges rural providers face.

 

  • Establish pre-tax early learnings savings accounts or extend 529 Plan accessibility.
  • CCAP: Avoid cliffs; use a stepped approach to incremental decreases in family aid.

 

  1. Form statewide alliances that champion early learning.

 

  • Provide forgivable or low-interest loans to businesses that build child care facilities.
  • Leverage public-private partnerships.

 

  1. Reduce paperwork. Remove redundancies.

 

  • Review and reduce administrative requirements. Eliminate CCAP paperwork
  • Convert CCAP to tax credit. Leverage technology to make the system a better user experience.
  • Allow seamless career portability between caregiver professions. Leverage transferrable skills.

 

 

 

 

 

The Participants:

 

Jessica Richards, First Children’s Finance

Amy Hinzmann, Leo Augusta Children’s Academy board chair

Evan Ramstad, Star Tribune business columnist

Rep. Patricia Mueller, Mn. House District 23B

Rep. Duane Quam, Mn. House District 24A

Sen. Carla Nelson, District 24

Rep. Natalie Zeleznikar, Mn. House District 03B

Tim Penny, former U.S. Rep. for District 1; current president of Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund

Jeanne Poppe, former Mn. State Representative; emeritus faculty, Riverland Community College

Chuck Ackman, district staff member for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Aaron Farris, staff member for U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad, District 1

Mick Ditlevson, candidate for Mn. House District 19B

Rick Gnemi, Steele County Board of Commissioners

Curt Esplan, Mayor of Blooming Prairie

Jessica Kremer, LACA director

Melissa Stoen, Blooming Prairie School Board

Rae Jean Hansen, Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund, Early Childhood Strategies manager

Cheryl Moret, Minnesota Prairie County Alliance

Billie Frantesl, Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, child and family social services supervisor

Patty Harrelson, Minnesota Prairie County Alliance, child and family social services manager

Annie Cloud

Kevin Burkart, moderator

 

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