What if we stopped making childcare needlessly more expensive in Minnesota?

Despite the record amount of money that lawmakers poured into child care last legislative session to make it more affordable, signs are appearing that it wasn’t enough to make a tangible dent in the child-care problem. Proposals are already underway for the state to dedicate even more money to the fragile industry come the 2024 session, which begins on Monday, Feb. 12.

I would like to offer a different perspective.

It is certainly true that the economics of child care are inherently challenging. But in Minnesota, excessive regulations are needlessly inflating costs. And if this is not addressed, no amount of money will ever go far enough, whether directed at the supply side or demand side.

Certainly, the health and safety of children is important, and so is quality. But in Minnesota, regulations — especially those dealing with hiring requirements, training, and child-to-staff ratios — go beyond ensuring minimum standards.

Unfortunately, there is no conclusive evidence that these stringent requirements significantly improve quality. Instead, they make operations costly for centers, limiting affordable, high-quality options for parents.

Consider the following: Someone applying to be a teacher at a licensed day-care center in Minnesota needs to have a four-year degree. In addition, she or he must have more than 1,000 hours or six months of experience as an assistant teacher. But in over half the states, rules aren’t as stringent.

Sure, there are various paths to becoming a child-care teacher in Minnesota. But all of them require a great deal of investment, in both time and money. Someone with a high school diploma, for instance, must work for a year as an aide or intern and take some college-level classes, first to become an assistant teacher. After that, he or she must work another two years as an assistant teacher, and again take some college-level classes, to then become a teacher. But for less work experience and no education, she or he can get a job that pays more elsewhere.

Centers, additionally, have little flexibility in how many children they can take care of due to the state’s stringent staff-to-child ratios. When centers are limited in how many children they can care for, they must spread the cost of providing care over a smaller number of children, which raises costs for parents. This is a finding that has been thoroughly documented by research evidence.

Adding to the complexity, even though assistant teachers in Minnesota are relatively more qualified than teachers in other states, they cannot be used as lead caregivers in day-care centers. Instead, state law mandates that for every group of children in a classroom there must be a teacher present. This limitation is compounded by the fact that unlike in most states where the cut-off age for infants is 12 months, in Minnesota, it is 16 months. Consequently, slightly older children are limited to low staff-to-child ratios, unlike in other states where teachers can put them in slightly larger groups where the cost of care is spread over a higher number of children.

All states neighboring Minnesota have relatively more affordable child care in part because they generally have more relaxed rules. South Dakota allows up to five infants per center staff, while in Minnesota the maximum is four. In South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa, staff dealing directly with children must only meet age and training requirements. Sure, child-care workers in North Dakota operate under supervision, but those supervisors only need to have a school diploma and one year of child-care experience. While Wisconsin does require child-care workers to have college credits, it only requires two courses for teachers and one course for assistant teachers. Moreover, a center can hire an assistant teacher with no prior experience, and a teacher is only required to have 320 hours of experience, not thousands.

The child-care crisis appears to be government-made. So, maybe, before we dedicate ourselves to spending more money, we should investigate the regulations responsible for the current landscape.

This article originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on February 5.