Minnesota’s new state agency focuses on children and caregivers

An adult woman plays with a toddler on a colorful rug at preschool
Monique Stumon plays with one of the toddlers at the School Readiness Learning Academy in Minneapolis on Sept. 19.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

It’s been over 30 years since Amanda Schillinger started as an early child care provider. She loves working with families and supporting young children as they grow and learn.

But as director of Pumpkin Patch Child Care and Learning Center in Burnsville, Minn., her job entails a lot of paperwork including permits, scholarships and contracts for 140 babies, toddlers and children across two locations. Meaning she has less time to spend with the kids and more time spent on administration.  

“As a child care provider, I have to navigate multiple agencies throughout the state to get something done,” Schillinger said. 

Currently, four different state agencies oversee programs for young children: the Department of Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Public Safety and the Department of Health. 

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But during this year’s legislative session, a proposal for a new state agency was passed to consolidate those programs under one jurisdiction: the Minnesota Department of Children, Youth and Families. 

“It's also going to help families find their resources,” Schillinger said. “Even paying for child care isn't under one department. That falls into two different areas as well. So kind of getting us all organized so that we can find our answers and find our needs and find our supports in one place instead of having to go so far to look for things.”

Schillinger was a part of listening sessions and testified to legislators with the statewide coalition “Kids Count on Us” to advocate for the new agency and she’s excited for what it means for providers to have a seat at the table. 

“We all have the same goal,” she said. “We want to see children grow and learn and be supported in their development. And that works best when everybody involved is working together.”

A woman stands outside a building
Amanda Schillinger stands outside Pumpkin Patch Child Care and Learning Center where she's been the director for over 20 years in Burnsville, Minn., on Sept. 13.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

Getting everybody involved and working together is what Erin Bailey, assistant commissioner of the Children’s Cabinet, is in charge of as the co-chair of the steering committee for the new department’s implementation.

“We've heard feedback from advocates for a long time, that they wanted something different, that coordination wasn't enough that they weren't seeing the results that they wanted,” Bailey said.

Conversations about the new agency started in 2019, but Bailey said the idea has been around for at least a decade. The team is now in the planning and engagement stages, but Bailey hopes this department can be a testament to Gov. Tim Walz’s commitment to creating a child-centered government.

“We should have a leadership structure that is responsive to our most precious resource, which I would argue is our kids and our youth and our families,” Bailey said.

Child care providers and families want there to be a centralized mission for early care and learning, and that’s what Bailey hopes this new department can do.

“We believe that there is opportunity to improve how Minnesotans experience, systems programs, how we better reach our goals for children, youth and families with a sharpened focus of an agency,” Bailey said.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, believes that sharpened focus will bring higher visibility to early care and learning issues. As the chair of the Children and Families Finance and Policy Committee, he also hopes the new department will mean better spending and accountability.

“These are very fragmented programs,” Pinto said. “And they are pretty much all — not pretty much they are all deeply underfunded and it's not nearly serving the families and kids that they're supposed to serve.”

Some of the money for child health, protection, learning and care services comes from the general tax fund and some from federal dollars.

Those will continue to be the main streams of funding for those programs but with coordinated spending proposals through a dedicated department, Pinto said it’ll be easier for legislators to advocate for budget increases that will benefit kids and families.

A sign in a window reads "All In for our littlest Minnesotans"
School Readiness Learning Academy in Minneapolis has a two-year waiting list that Director Monique Stumon says is indicative of the childcare crisis in Minnesota.
Kyra Miles | MPR News

Critics of the new department, like Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, argued that the proposal could shift the focus to statistics rather than what is best for individual children.

Pinto said early care and learning should be viewed holistically. Because it’s not only about getting kids early interventions and quality educations, it’s about parents being able to work without worrying about how much child care costs or the safety of their children. 

“In the longer run, I hope that it continues to elevate the importance of this issue of getting young kids off to a great start,” Pinto said. “We know that when we do that we all benefit. And historically, that's something that we have not done. And we see the problems later on.” 

Addressing disparities

Bright educational signs line the walls at School Readiness Learning Academy in Minneapolis where Monique Stumon sits in a circle with children in multicolored chairs. Stumon is the founder and director of this center and she hopes the new department will better address the child care crisis in Minnesota and disparities in early education.

“I think it's important that the state starts looking at multiple ways of making sure that families are not falling through the cracks,” Stumon said. “So often Black and brown children are the ones that get left behind. And so I think with this new department, and different people sitting at the table is important so that our voices are heard and that we build this thing together.”

The transition to the department of children, youth and families is to be completed by 2025 with as little disruption to current programs as possible. In the meantime, Stumon said she looks forward to changes that show the state and the new department is committed to improving care for young children and their providers.

“I will know that it's working when my paperwork has been reduced,” Stumon said. “I will know it's working when more children, particularly children of color are getting more coverage. I will know that it's working when our stress level rate goes down.”

She said she knows the new department is working when everyone is taking early child care and providers seriously.

A woman stands in front of a mural of a tree and butterflies.
Monique Stumon stands in front of a commissioned mural in her child care center School Readiness Learning Academy in Minneapolis on Sept. 19.
Kyra Miles | MPR News