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Can child care shortage be fixed?

A legislative panel addresses the child care shortage in Minnesota at a conference in Alexandria Nov. 15. Members included (left to right) Sen. Kent Eken, Sen. Mark Johnson, Sen. Erik Simonson and Rep. Joe Schomacker. Nicole Griensewic Mickelson (right), president of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, served as moderator. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

Something rare happened at an event last week in Alexandria.

Two DFL leaders and two Republican leaders all agreed on something — Minnesota's child care shortage is a big problem that should be a priority in the next legislative session.

The legislators talked about possible solutions at a panel discussion Thursday, Nov. 15, during the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities Fall Conference at Arrowwood Resort and Conference Center. The two-day event drew hundreds of city leaders from throughout the state.

Minnesota has a greater need for child care because it ranks third in the nation for having both parents in the workforce, said Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley. Adding to the complexity of the problem is that many workers have non-traditional work hours or have children with special needs, he added.

Another panelist, Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said the child care shortage is a statewide problem and solutions for metro and rural areas require different approaches.

Hot topic

Eken called the child care shortage an "incredibly important topic" — not only for those looking for care but for businesses that could shy away from moving to a community if it doesn't have enough providers.

The "ripple effect" from the shortage impacts local governments, local economies and entire communities, Eken said. The challenge, he added, is that there is no "silver bullet" that will solve the problem.

Another panelist, Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said lack of child care is a not a new problem. One bright spot, he said, is it's an issue that's receiving bipartisan support. He said it should be a focus of the next session and legislators have an opportunity to make real strides.

The child care issue started out as a health and human services issue but has now become an economic development issue, according to Schomacker.

Panelist Rep. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said Digi-Key Electronics' recent expansion in Thief River Falls left new employees scrambling to find a place that will care for their children.

Johnson said rural Minnesota is booming but issues such as the child care shortage, inadequate workforce housing and not enough workers to fill all the jobs threaten to tamper that growth.

Providers leaving

While the Legislature searches for solutions, providers are leaving the field at an alarming rate, Eken said.

A city leader in St. Joseph told the panel that her community has lost between 200 and 300 child care providers in five years, and many of them were fed up with all the regulations. She added that a legislative subcommittee, which included Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, toured the state a couple of years ago to come up with possible solutions and asked if anything came from it.

The panel's moderator, Nicole Griensewic Mickelson, said the subcommittee presented its recommendations to the Legislature in January 2017, and they are available online at www.lcc.leg.mn/tfcc/.

Can the state help?

The state can provide incentives to keep existing providers and recruit new ones by offering scholarships and loan forgiveness for the training they receive, Eken said. He added that quality of care is more important than quantity because providers are helping children's brain development at a crucial age from birth to age 5.

"It's not just a matter of finding someone to care for children, but someone who will stimulate brain development as well," Eken said.

Johnson said subsidizing certain providers could compete with businesses and school systems by pulling workers away from those fields.

Simonson said the Minnesota Department of Health should be finding solutions and making recommendations about funding to help providers. He supports more subsidies but wants to hold agencies more accountable, too.

Burdensome regulations

In response to a question about the burdensome regulations imposed on providers, Eken said the Legislature has taken some steps to address the issue. A requirement for providers to have everyone in their home over age 13 fingerprinted was removed.

Eken believes regulatory agencies should be reigned in, with some of the rules doing more harm than good and are pushing providers out of the business.

The relationship between regulators and providers, Eken said, should move away from a "gotcha" mentality and focus on support rather than punishment.

Simonson said lawmakers and regulatory agencies tend to forget that to solve the problem, they should be asking communities and providers what needs to be done. He called providers "heroes who are working for next to nothing."

Schomacker said tweaks need to be made in some of the regulations, such as the licensing ratios for how many children providers can care for, their ages and staffing.

"It will take a lot of small steps to get to the heart of this," he said.

Helping families

Moderator Mickelson noted that families pay between $6,000 and $13,000 per child per year for child care and receive a maximum tax credit of $1,050. She asked if the panelists would raise that amount.

All four said they'd support an increase.

Getting creative

The panelists were asked if they've noticed any creative ways communities are dealing with the child care shortage.

Eken said Ada has set up a daycare within its nursing home, which is good for the children and good for the residents who live seeing kids around.

About the coalition

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization representing 97 cities outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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