Tim Penny April 2016 Op-Ed

Baby Steps: Moving the Early Childhood Conversation Forward

As Week of the Young Child wraps up, it’s a good time to remember how much progress has been made in the field of early childhood education and development.

In the early 2000s, the leaders of the six Minnesota Initiative Foundations (MIFs) serving Greater Minnesota met to discuss what they could do to make the most change for rural Minnesota communities. While everything from workforce development to an increase in affordable housing was put on the table, early childhood development emerged as the top shared concern. About 15 years ago, Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF) and the five other MIFs brought the issue to state legislators and other early childhood leaders. This was a huge step in moving the conversation around early childhood from important to imperative.

At that time, there was an increase in research on brain and social-emotional skill development. We now know how critical the early years of life are; the first five years of a child’s life have an enormous impact on an individual’s life trajectory, from earning potential to relationship formation. Ninety percent of the brain’s capacity develops before age five. Success at age 10 can be attributed to the amount of words heard from birth to age three. More research continues to prove what we knew intuitively: high-quality care in early life is not just nice but necessary for long-term success.

For all the gains that have been made, we are learning just how much room we still have for progress. The United States ranks 21st out of the 34 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in total investment for early childhood education relative to country wealth and 26th in preschool participation (Center for American Progress, 2013). While Minnesota is consistently above the mark, we too have room to grow, especially in making sure quality care is not reserved for just a portion of our state’s kids. Currently, one in three children under the age of five grows up in poverty. For them, access to affordable, quality child care is extremely important.

In rural Minnesota, we’re facing a shortage of child care providers. The House Republicans just cited a 21 percent decrease in child care providers in the past decade (a loss of about 3,000). In rural Minnesota, we also experience a child care “squeeze:” parents can’t afford to pay out of pocket, but providers can’t afford to charge less. These are issues state legislators are aware of, but we need to be thinking long-term about how to address both of these issues.

We frequently get calls at SMIF from concerned residents and business owners that this shortage is not just affecting kids or child care providers, but our region’s overall economic health. These calls prompted the Foundation to pull together the Rural Economic Development and Child Care meeting on April 26. The Foundation’s partners at First Children’s Finance will join us to provide information and strategies that community leaders can use to stabilize and grow the supply of child care in rural communities.

Another strategy is SMIF’s Quality Child Care Program (QCCP). SMIF staff and partners have worked with providers in nearly all of SMIF’s 20 counties so far. A big focus of this program is ensuring that our region’s child care providers understand the importance of the role they play as professionals overseeing one of our state’s greatest assets, our children. We’ve seen encouraging results in our region: the number of providers participating in Parent Aware, the State’s rating system, is 10 percent higher than Minnesota’s average (12 percent). However, we still have a long way to go, as more than three quarters are not yet participating.

Through the QCCP program, providers receive information on new curriculums, better business practices, and training on how to meet the State’s Parent Aware Ratings and hence qualify for scholarships for the children in their care. With over 2,000 providers in the Foundation’s 20-county region, we will continue to expand this program.

I invite you to join the Foundation on April 26 at the Holiday Inn in Owatonna to learn more about how we can move forward together. It’s time to take the next steps ensuring quality care for our region’s youngest citizens.

I welcome your comments and questions. You can reach me at timp@smifoundation.org or 507-455-3215.