Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Childcare shortage

The state’s gauntlet of rules is contributing to a serious problem

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As we report this week, a new study by Center for Rural Policy Development highlights what the organization now calls the “quiet crisis” in rural Minnesota due to the lack of childcare options for families. The group found that over the last decade, non-metro parts of the state have lost over 15,000 daycare slots even as demand for quality childcare has increased.

Northeastern Minnesota is one of the hardest hit regions of the state and is identified as a “childcare desert” by organizations that track childcare availability.

The lack of quality daycare is more than just an inconvenience for families of young children. It’s an economic issue that is hurting the ability of small communities to fully utilize their available workforces. Quality childcare not only provides employment opportunities directly, it allows parents to take advantage of other opportunities in their communities. Small business owners know well the challenges they face attracting qualified employees in many small towns, including right here in northeastern Minnesota. But parents who might otherwise fit the bill for employers are often forced to choose between working and providing a safe and nurturing environment for their young children.

So why is it so difficult to make new daycare slots available in rural Minnesota? As the CRPD study makes clear, a one-size-fits-all approach to the regulation of daycare facilities in Minnesota is one major factor. The rules in place for even the smallest commercial daycare are stunning in their complexity and that’s a strong disincentive for small communities to undertake the effort. Representatives of Little Eagles Childcare Center in Tower have been working since May to run the regulatory gauntlet necessary to establish a center that will be able to serve just 18 children due, again, to state rules. And because of state fire code and other rules, the center will be limited to serving children within a two-and-a-half year age spread, when it opens next month.

That’s despite the fact that the center will be located on the first floor of a newly-renovated elementary school that is fully sprinklered and equipped with a modern fire alarm system. To serve a wider spread of children, the center would be required to install integrated smoke detection along two separate school corridors, which would cost thousands of dollars.

The school doesn’t need the smoke detection for its Early Childhood Family Education or Learning Readiness programs, but the rules are apparently different for daycare centers.

We recognize that there is probably a reason for every new rule, but we also recognize that, at some point, common sense should apply. Commercial daycare centers are required to have a policy for almost every conceivable incident, including a policy and procedure for preventing pinched fingers. No one wants to see a little kid get their finger pinched, but how much can a policy really do to prevent such an accident? And rest assured, there are a hundred other similar examples.

This has actually been a chronic problem for years in the educational sector, which includes quality daycare centers. Since education takes place in the real world, things happen. Yet every time something does happen, lawmakers and the regulators churn out one more rule, along with the accompanying forms and required reports, with everything in triplicate. At least it keeps our paper mills humming.

In places like the Twin Cities, the plethora of regulations is more manageable for daycare operators, in part because they have far larger numbers of families they can serve, which helps offset the cost of renovating facilities to serve all ages of children and hiring staff who can devote themselves to pushing the paper. With sufficient numbers, large urban areas also attract interest from corporate daycare facilities, like Apple Tree. That’s one reason why daycare slots have managed to largely keep pace with demand in the metro region.

But small towns don’t attract corporate operators, and the regulatory hurdles make it a real challenge for small, community-based efforts to establish facilities that can truly meet the need. At some point, the folks in St. Paul need to get that message.

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