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Advocate group banks on legislation, coalitions to bolster declining day cares

Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership -- an advocacy coalition for greater Minnesota communities -- stops by the Brainerd Dispatch to discuss the pressing issue of child care for working families. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

The current state of Minnesotan day cares is anything but child's play.

And, when child care is one of the top issues facing Minnesota's labor force, the industry's decline in recent years could mean rough sledding for the economy if a solution isn't reached effectively and expediently.

As executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, Dan Dorman said he's looking to rehabilitate the child care industry through forming a coalition of towns, nonprofits and lawmakers, whether that's on the road or in the pillared halls of the Capitol in St. Paul.

It's a sobering picture, Dorman said, evidenced by a 27 percent drop in providers statewide between 2006 and 2015, all while nearly 74 percent of families with children below the age of 6 have both parents in the workforce.

"In the last couple years, more and more of our members have been saying, 'Child care is increasingly an issue,'" said Dorman, who noted child care factors as an important part of economic development efforts across rural Minnesota by the partnership. "We've always looked at child care as part of economic development. That's almost become our top issue."

And while it's a statewide issue, he added, Greater Minnesota is bearing the brunt as the child care industry hemorrhages providers at a frightening rate. The Twin Cities metro, by virtue of its densely populated areas, can address the problem through the establishment of centers and other related providers not tied to employment.

Greater Minnesota? It's the inverse, Dorman said, where a shrinking pool of private providers are supporting thousands and thousands of families. It's estimated the child care industry has to grow by no less than 35 percent to overcome the shortfall, according to the Center for Rural Policy and Development.

"We're trying to get the message out, see if we can get some support under it," Dorman said of child care as a topical matter in the state Legislature. "We're optimistic. The Senate has taken a strong position and I suspect the House will do the same thing."

On a more substantive note, Dorman pointed to two pieces of legislation being considered by lawmakers in the Minnesota House and Senate to address the shortage:

• SF 538/HF 423, which would create a child care capital grant program. This bill would authorize the state to provide grants to child care providers, local governments and regional economic development organizations to cover up to 50 percent of costs to build, upgrade or expand child care facilities. That's all the more important, Dorman noted, when one considers the considerable costs of building and maintaining these highly regulated facilities. For example, it costs between $200,000 to $450,000 to start up a 52-slot center in Greater Minnesota, and that doesn't include buying the property. The bill asks for an allocation of $10 million for these purposes.

• SF 537/HF 422, which would establish a child care business and training fund. This bill would provide funding to Minnesota Initiative Foundations for planning, coordination, training and education to expand child care. The bill stipulates initiatives to strengthen these providers in a business sense to ensure their viability and longevity. This piece of legislation is seeking an allocation of $3 million for these purposes.

In addition to those bills, to bolster child care providers across the state—particularly rural areas outside the Twin Cities metro—Greater Minnesota Partnership is in favor of the following overarching goals:

• Fostering high-quality child and sustainable business practices via grants and low-interest loans for training and capacity expansion, improvements to the regulation inspection process, as well as business development training and support.

• Creating markets where families have access to high-quality and affordable child care. Enhancements to the state's child care tax credit program is noted as a possible avenue to increase the supply of both center-based and home-based child care options.

• Building a stable child care provider workforce. This includes business support for providers, financial incentives—including boosting wages—to encourage workforce applications and retention, as well as incentive benefits for working families.

How does the state lose 27 percent of its providers in roughly a decade? Dorman said overregulation by state authorities is the most cited reason—though, he noted, that's only one part of the larger issues.

For day care providers, to remain licensed (and avoid damning infractions on their records) they have to follow a specific, demanding and ever-changing list of regulations, Dorman said. It could be the qualifications of the staff, he added, all the way down to using disposable paper cups over plastic cups, or not stacking laundry on a dryer.

Furthermore, Dorman pointed to what he termed a "cultural problem" among regulatory agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Health and Human Services, which he said fell into the practice of shutting down and running day care providers out of business for minor infractions. Instead of their historically punitive bent, Dorman said agencies should work proactively and cooperatively with providers.

Dorman added many day cares can't provide a realistic work environment for employees—who, beyond meeting a host of strict standards as caretakers, often come into the worst starting job for a four-year college degree: $12 per hour and no benefits. Finding viable candidates who want to care for children as a career, let alone can afford to, is a monumental task for day cares, Dorman added.

There's also the divide between Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities, Dorman said. While lawmakers based in the metro area have good intentions, he said they often don't understand particular issues facing families in rural areas, or how to craft bills to address child care shortages in small towns over urban centers.

Dorman said rural Minnesotans—who come from disparate smaller communities with more autonomy and individual identities, compared to a more united metro area—have been less likely to organize efforts to address these shortfalls. Beyond child care, he added, the Greater Minnesota Partnership was created to give rural Minnesotans a representative voice.

Dorman pointed to a lack of funding for child care programs—which the two bills on the docket hope to address in part. While the state has made it abundantly clear it has high (and some cases almost unreachable) standards of quality, Dorman said it now has to invest in the industry in a way that benefits the economy as a whole.

Gabriel Lagarde

Whether it's your local city council, all the way up to the Governor's office, government plays a part in every aspect of your life. It's important that the people you elect reflect your needs, your values and your vision, and that's why I'm out covering the people and issues that matter, because they matter to you. But it takes time and resources to dig deeper than face value, to capture the whole picture and do the due diligence, so consider subscribing to the Brainerd Dispatch. Your news. Your reporter. Your paper.  To help support local journalism, click here to sign up to receive a Dispatch digital subscription to our e-edition or to receive the printed paper at your door, or to get both.

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