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At Issue: Investing in quality care for kids

Published (4/24/2009)
By Kris Berggren
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Rep. Nora Slawik presents the omnibus early childhood finance bill April 23 on the House floor. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)The inaugural omnibus early childhood finance bill passed the House 84-47 on April 23

The bill’s short life most likely ends here, however, as its provisions are expected to be divided in conference committee between the K-12 education and health and human services finance bills. Some early childhood programs are funded through each channel.

The Senate put its pre-kindergarten through grade 12 funding in one bill, SF1328, sponsored by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer). It was approved 37-29 April 7.

Rep. Nora Slawik (DFL-Maplewood), who sponsors HF2088, said “three overarching goals” the division has maintained through the session are: getting an early start on closing the achievement gap, increasing child care quality and readying children for kindergarten. She said the programs are a long-term investment that will pay off in lower remedial costs in K-12 education and the juvenile justice system.

Key provisions would:

• create a statewide child care quality rating system based on the pilot Parent Aware project and help child care providers get ready to meet quality expectations if they wish to apply for inclusion in the rating system;

• transfer $1 million of the unspent balance from federal funding for basic sliding fee program to the Education Department to fund Words Work, an intensive Head Start literacy program, and another $1 million for after-school program grants; and

• use one-time federal stimulus funds to increase by 2 percent the state’s reimbursement rate to child care providers who accept the basic sliding fee or MFIP subsidies, and to reduce by about one-third the waiting list of those eligible for sliding fee subsidies, while limiting retroactive eligibility.

The bill features no cuts to spending targets, but proposes larger accounting shifts for Department of Education-funded programs. It would cost $455 million in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, divided between $262.8 million for Human Services Department programs, including Minnesota Family Investment Plan child care and economic assistance grants and the basic sliding fee Child Care Assistance Program for low-income working families, and $192.2 million for Education Department programs including adult basic education, Head Start, after-school program grants and school readiness services preparing at-risk children for kindergarten.

About $6 million in federal stimulus funds would be used to improve child care quality, and another $21 million to increase child care provider reimbursement rates for MFIP and CCAP providers and reduce the waiting list for basic sliding fee subsidies. The governor proposes to cut provider rates by 3 percent while increasing parent co-pays.

Slawik noted the bill includes all of the governor’s education policy proposals except a 12-hour minimum weekly requirement for school readiness participation. The requirement was a hardship for programs that, with no additional funding, would be expected to increase hours or serve fewer children for more hours.

While most Republicans support the broad goals Slawik named, they have different priorities about how best to target programs to the most at-risk children. They prefer to direct funding to strengthen children within the context of their families and preserve parental choice over programs they perceive as state-run or one-size-fits all. House Republicans went 1-for-11 in getting amendments added to the bill.

Rep. Keith Downey (R-Edina) and Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan), both members of the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division, sought to strike a provision to expand the statewide Quality Rating System, currently in a pilot program run by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, scheduled to expire in 2011.

They say the program should run its course and the foundation should issue its report and recommendations about carrying out a statewide implementation of a similar system and what role the private and public sectors should play. Although the rating system is voluntary, they say that in effect, such ratings would drive the market in favor of larger centers compared to family day care facilities that may be less able to meet all the quality rating criteria.

Downey also unsuccessfully sought to strike a provision that would pay providers who earn a 3- or 4-star rating a differential increase.

The bill originally contained a provision to create an Office of Early Learning to coordinate children’s services between the Human Services and Education departments. An amendment successfully offered by Rep. Randy Demmer (R-Hayfield) at the April 19 House Ways and Means Committee meeting downsized the idea to appoint a “director” who would be appointed by the governor with the same intent to coordinate services. The director would create a statewide inventory of child services to enhance understanding of what is available, who is using the services, and who is eligible who may not be using them. Downey and Buesgens each unsuccessfully sought to strike the entire provision.

Rep. Tara Mack (R-Apple Valley) successfully offered an amendment to use part of the unspent Child Care Development Fund balance to fund two additional reading programs besides the Words Work program already in the bill.

Buesgens said that in the current economy hard financial decisions must be made by families and legislators, and offered an amendment to strike all education funding appropriations from the bill.

“This budget area is a half a billion dollars,” said Buesgens. “Let’s separate the necessary from the nice.”

“You’re right about one thing; this is the worst economy we’ve ever seen,” Slawik said adding, “Child care is workforce development.” She said 72 percent of all Minnesota families with children under age 6 have all available parents in the workforce.

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