Nicole Frethem

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In 2021, the Minnesota legislature authorized the Great Start for All task force to present recommendations for how the state can provide “access to affordable, high-quality early care and education that enriches, nurtures, and supports children and their families,” to “all families” in Minnesota.

The early care and education landscape in Minnesota has experienced dramatic changes in programming and investments over the last twenty years. In the early 2000s, the state’s primary child care subsidy program, the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP), was moved from the Department of Children, Families and Learning to the Department of Human Services in an administrative restructuring. For several years after this change, partially as a result of the Great Recession, the program experienced disinvestment leaving it significantly behind other state subsidy programs.

While the state was disinvesting in child care, economic researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis was publishing groundbreaking research in the high public return of investment in quality early childhood development programs.

Instead of re-investing in CCAP, the state instead invested in multiple pilot programs and/or partial early childhood investments, most notably the Early Learning Scholarship program. While well-intentioned, the abundance of programs led to a complex and confusing system, for both families and early care and education providers, as highlighted by a 2018 Office of Legislative Auditor (OLA) audit of Early Childhood Programs.

Today, the Great Start for All task force provides an opportunity for transformational change in the early care and education landscape. Unfortunately, many in the early care and education community are pessimistic about the task force putting forward a proposal that is both substantive and implementable. Those invested in early care and education struggle to reconcile the promise of high-quality care, on-going disparities in access and workforce development, and how to create government programs with program integrity measures that work for families, early care and education providers, and funders.

Part One of this paper will provide contextual information about early care and education and the history of public investment, or lack thereof, across the country. Part Two of this paper will identify and summarize the primary challenges and opportunities in Minnesota’s early care and education ecosystem and reform efforts over the last decade. Part Three of this paper will lay priorities and a pathway for progress that could be implemented at the state level to realize a universal, affordable, high-quality early care and education system for all Minnesota children.