Lee Schafer
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The report on “saving Minnesota’s child care sector” during the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the middle of an already exhausting week, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the eruption of anger, grief and violence that followed.

It was the kind of report that seemed easy to put aside amid talk of bigger problems. Until reaching the end, where its message was simply stated: No child care, no economic recovery.

Parents who need to leave the house for work still need child care, and nearly half now allowed to work from home still do, too, according to one survey. That’s why you see the involvement of business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce in the coalition that produced this latest paper.

In a conversation last week with the economist Art Rolnick, who sent me the white paper, he referred to child care as early childhood education, making the good point that providing for a high-quality place for little kids is an investment that generates returns.

He has been an advocate of additional funding for the youngest kids for years, a project that really goes back to the early 2000s and his role then as research chief at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Early childhood education might be what others called child care, but it’s really mostly the same thing. In addition to being kept safe, active and fed, kids in a high-quality child care program are building fine motor skills and learning all about shapes, colors, letters, numbers and other things that will help them do well once they get to kindergarten.

Among the groups that participated in this latest paper on the crisis in early childhood education is one called Close Gaps by 5, where Rolnick and several business leaders serve as board members. The term “gaps” reflects one key notion in their work, that the early childhood education system as it existed really disadvantaged kids from lower-income families, a big contributor to what’s called the achievement gap in education.

In a continuation of the work that Rolnick once participated in, the Minneapolis Fed reported last fall that Minnesota has some of the largest gaps in the nation on educational outcome measures by race and economic status.

There’s an easy argument to make that it’s not just immoral to allow that to continue, because it also saps the potential for more broadly shared and greater prosperity in the state years down the road.

For those in the Twin Cities who somehow haven’t noticed, there has been one story after another in the news in the past week or so that has shown that some of the worst disparities in the country between the lives of black and white people are in Minnesota.

Household wealth is one telling measure, often illustrated by different rates of owning a house, a common path to building some family wealth. As of the most recent data based on U.S. Census Bureau numbers, it was 75% for non-Hispanic white households in the Twin Cities, and 25% for black households. The black homeownership rate has fallen since 2000 but held steady for white households.

Groups such as Close Gaps by 5 say it makes sense to work on the problem of gaps developing well before kids get to kindergarten, and to let parents help solve the problem.

The main policy idea was to give scholarship money to low-income families that might have the toughest time finding good programs for their kids or the money to pay for them. With money to spend, the parents would help bring the right kind of supply into their own market.

“We really wanted to highlight for policymakers the idea that you could get a two-for-one,” said Ericca Maas, executive director of Close Gaps by 5. “You could address child-care shortages at the same time the investments could help address achievement gaps.”

“In the last month or so,” she added, “we were increasingly seeing evidence that both crises were going to be made worse by the pandemic.”

The policy recommendations in the most recent paper went beyond stimulating demand for good child-care programs by arguing also for swift action to direct more money to child-care providers to help keep their doors open.

In a market that was already losing providers before the health crisis, costs will increase to manage the potential spread of COVID-19, from staff members missing work as result of illness or self-isolating to the increased cost of cleaning and supplies.

In one estimate, the increased cost was about 20% for small child-care operations and even more for larger centers.

Many providers also face limits on how many kids they can safely let back into their programs.

“The providers I’ve spoken with are thinking if they could reach 50% capacity that is as high as they are going to be able to go without a vaccine. They are planning for a year.” Maas said. “When I asked about whether that was sustainable from a business perspective, the answer was basically ‘no.’ ”

Another Minnesota nonprofit in child care, Think Small, is about to release findings from calling the nearly 1,700 providers in Hennepin and Ramsey counties in late April and May, said Barb Yates, the organization’s president.

Part of the reason to call was to offer support, reaching more than half of them, but they also gathered information. The industry tracks capacity as “slots,” meaning the number of kids the center is licensed to have, and since the pandemic crisis blossomed in March, nearly 20% of the capacity has gone at the providers they reached, Yates said.

It might not mean a permanent reduction, she added, but they also can only guess at how many of the providers they weren’t able to reach in their calling might have closed down.

“It’s a problem across the country, it’s not just in Minnesota,” Yates said. “It’s just a really stressed financial model that doesn’t much work anymore, if it ever did.”