Minnesota lawmakers pledge at least $300 million toward early education

Classroom materials used for education are visible
Classroom materials used for education are visible at Falcon Heights Elementary School on May 17.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Minnesota is putting more than $300 million in new spending toward early childhood initiatives, including early learning scholarships for low-income families, grow-your-own educator grants and a new state agency dedicated to youth and families. 

While Minnesota’s K-12 education system is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Education and funded to the tune of $23 billion, current early education funding and programming is overseen and funded through two different agencies: the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and the Department of Human Services (DHS).

This session, DFL lawmakers made moves to combine the administration of these programs by coming up with a new agency that would oversee early learning, and other programming related to childcare, food assistance, youth opportunity and child protection.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul oversees the House’s Children and Families Finance and Policy committee. He supported the creation of the new department, which will be called the Department of Children, Youth and Families. The new department is meant to go into effect in July of 2024 when Pinto said he expects a commissioner to be named. 

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“This has really been many years in the making,” Pinto said. “This is a proposal to have a department that would be child and youth focused, to really put children at the center.” 

Some lawmakers raised concerns with the creation of a new state agency, including Rep. Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring.

“(It’s) a brand new, massive bureaucracy under the leadership of another political appointee,” Demuth said during a House floor session. “I believe we can and we should do better.” 

Demuth and others also raised concerns with other changes made to Minnesota’s early learning and childcare system. 

The bill funnels more than $252 million toward early learning scholarships, which are designed to help low-income families afford preschool and childcare by making payments to childcare providers in the form of scholarships. But it also proposes combining the state’s DHS-administered Childcare Assistance Program with the MDE-administered early learning scholarships in an entirely new program to be known as Great Start Scholarships. 

The move will also combine the state’s current day care licensing process with Minnesota’s Parent Aware system which ranks early education providers on things like school-readiness activities, developmental tracking, cultural responsiveness and special needs accommodations. 

“It's going to take a few years, but over time, [it will]... move them all into sort of one approach that can operate under the new agency, and as part of this, to try to move towards quality,” Pinto said. “It’s part of having it be … an enriching, good experience that truly is early learning and education.”

But Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin, worries the changes could be burdensome to childcare providers — especially home-based providers in rural areas that already struggle to meet the demand for care

“From Greater Minnesota, one of our biggest issues is child care… we have just a crisis of a lack of options for child care,” Mueller said. 

“The loss of thousands of licensed family care providers over the last decade is predominantly due to burdensome regulations, licensing inconsistencies and increased paperwork. This bill doesn’t address that,” Mueller added, referring to a 2019 family childcare taskforce report.

Other early education funding made its way through the legislature in other bills. The K-12 bill included permanent funding for 4,000 district-based pre-k slots, which had previously been temporary, plus an additional 5,000 new slots focused on four-year-olds.

That expansion is below the 25,000 slots proposed by the Walz administration. But Pinto said it was an improvement and part of a distinction to focus funding for four-year-olds in district schools and get more of the early learning scholarships to Minnesota three-year-olds. 

More early-education funding made its way into a human services bill, including increased rates for the Childcare Assistance Program. 

“All of this really is about trying to put us on a different track and say, ‘Hey, we made a mistake in the 1800s in thinking that learning development started at age five. We also just know…that parents need to work.’” Pinto said. “We want to make sure that kids are getting enriching experiences.”