More can be done to loosen childcare regulations, but bill HF 2817 is a good start

Childcare is expensive in Minnesota. In 2019, for example, Minnesota parents paid over $16,000 to keep their infants in a daycare center. Only five other states were more expensive than Minnesota.

The same is true when we consider cost as a proportion of income. While places like California are more expensive than Minnesota, Californians have higher incomes. So, relatively speaking — as a proportion of income — childcare is more affordable there than in Minnesota. On this measure, Minnesotans with the median household income paid 21.67 percent of their money to keep infants in daycare. This is the fourth-highest rate in the nation.

While a lot of money is spent on programs to help parents afford childcare every year, one thing that is rarely looked at is regulation.

In all states, including Minnesota, the state government requires that daycare centers follow certain standards. These include staff-child ratios and maximum group sizes, as well as staff hiring and training requirements.

Whether these requirements improve quality is not clear. But research evidence does not support claims that regulations have a bearing on quality. This is true for rules that focus on structural measures like staff-child ratios. These regulations, however, do raise the price of care.

If daycare centers have to hire teachers with a bachelor’s degree or more, they need to offer them higher wages, which raises prices. Similarly, if daycare centers have to have 1 teacher per 4 infants in a classroom, it raises the cost of providing care for that group of infants.

This is why legislators should support bill HF 2817, which would loosen some of the requirements that daycare centers have to follow.

Proposed changes

The Minnesota Department of Human Services‚ which regulates daycare providers, requires that centers have 1 staff per 4 infants, 1 staff per 7 toddlers, 1 staff per 10 preschoolers, and 1 staff per school-age child. DHS also requires that the first person that can be used to meet these staff-child ratios should be a teacher. Aides can be counted in staff-child ratios as long as they are not the first staff person to satisfy these requirements.

To be a daycare center teacher, however, someone with a high school diploma must have 4,160 hours of experience as an assistant teacher, as well as 24 quarter credits education. But in order to be an assistant teacher, someone with a high school diploma must have 2,080 hours experience as a student intern or aide and 12 quarter credits.

This means that outside of the educational requirements, it would take someone with a high school diploma over three years of childcare work to satisfy the requirements of being a teacher. These training requirements raise the cost of hiring a qualified teacher. And the requirement that teachers must be used first to satisfy child-staff ratios leaves providers with little options to substitute for less expensive workers.

Bill HF 2817 amends the provision that the first person to satisfy staff-child ratios must be a teacher and instead allows anyone at least qualified as an aide to be used for that role. This means that providers can consider using assistant teachers or even aides — who face less educational and training requirements than teachers and are likely to be more affordable — to meet satisfy initial staff-child ratio requirements.

And if providers can save on labor costs, those savings can be passed on to parents.

The bill also allows providers to mix children of different ages — something which would provide centers with flexibility. To ensure safety, however, the center has to apply the staff and group requirements of the youngest child — a common rule among states that allow mixing children of different ages.

It’s a good start, but more can be done

Childcare regulations in Minnesota are stringent. Some lawmakers argue that this is why our state has high-quality standards compared to other states. Research, however, does not support the claim that stringent requirements affect quality. In fact, most of the factors associated with childcare quality are hardly measured by these regulations we have in place.

Loosening childcare regulations would be a big step in ensuring access to high-quality affordable care. Bill HF 2187 is a good start, but more can be done to loosen requirements, especially when it comes to child-staff ratios, group size limits, and staff hiring requirements.