House Democrats want to spend surplus on early childhood

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Rep. Melissa Hortman introduces DFL proposal on early childhood education.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman introduces DFL proposal on early childhood education on Thursday in St. Paul.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

DFL representatives in the Minnesota House on Thursday suggested state surplus money should go to early childhood education and child care.

"We know that Minnesota has one of the worst opportunity gaps in the nation,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “And we know that too many families are struggling to try to find affordable child care. And that is why we have a proposal to make a significant investment in our children from birth to age 3."

The proposal allocates $190 million toward early learning scholarships for children 3 and younger — an investment Democrats say would help approximately 25,000 Minnesota children get early ed. The proposal also puts $22 million toward one-time child care provider support; Democrats say that's enough to get affordable care to about 2,000 children.

Karin Swenson, who runs a child care program in Rochester, Minn., said the proposal would help her nonprofit as well as families and children in her community.

"Low, low teacher pay is supporting the system. This truly is an injustice, it really is,” Swenson said.

Alison Petri is mother to three young children in Plymouth. She said an early learning scholarship like those envisioned by the DFL proposal was instrumental to helping her family afford child care for their son, Colin.

"You can only cut so much, and a cut we considered taking was removing Colin from full-time preschool. As an educator, I know a high quality early education is a critical component to success in kindergarten, yet it was costing our family as much as it would to send him to the University of Minnesota," Petri said.

A recent report from the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute found widespread evidence of what Petri is talking about. The average cost of infant care in Minnesota is more than $1,300 per month. That's more than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. It's also about 30 percent more than the average rent.

Republican Sen. Carla Nelson leads the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee. She said she likes the idea of putting some of the projected $1.3 billion in budget surplus money toward early education scholarships, but she wants to prioritize children who are closer to kindergarten.

"One-time money should be spent on something like early learning scholarships because they yield long-term results,” she said. “And I also believe that it needs to be focused on those 4-year-olds. So there's a lot of agreement, but there's also a difference in how this should be implemented."

DFL leaders said they don't yet have any Republican co-sponsors for their bill, but they hope to get their colleagues across the aisle on board.

MPR News reporter Tim Pugmire contributed to this story.