July 3, 2023
Early this year, we published a blog post highlighting four states poised to enact impactful legislation related to early care and education. One of the four states we mentioned was Minnesota because the midterm elections resulted in Democrats holding a trifecta in state government for the first time since 2014.
This year’s legislative session in Minnesota has been hailed as transformational by many policymakers. Democratic Governor Tim Walz called it “the most successful legislative session, certainly in many of our lifetimes and maybe in Minnesota history.”
What was accomplished this session in terms of helping children and families? Nancy Jost, co-chair of the state’s Prenatal to Three (PN-3) Coalition and director of early childhood at West Central Initiative, summed it up this way: “I have been in the early childhood space for 50 years, and nothing has ever happened like this before. This is the most exciting legislative session in my 50 years of being involved in early childhood. We did so many things, not just for child care, but for children and families.”
Indeed, so much was recently accomplished on behalf of Minnesota’s young children that it’s difficult to know where to start describing the specific achievements. (For a great overview, check out this legislative summary from the PN-3 Coalition).
Perhaps the legislative achievement that has generated the most attention is the creation of a paid leave program, making Minnesota the first state in the Midwest to enact such a law. Starting in January 2026, nearly all employees in the state will be eligible to receive up to 12 weeks of paid medical leave as well as 12 weeks of paid family leave, with benefits capped at 100 percent of the state’s average weekly wage. This will allow workers with important caregiving or health needs, such as bonding with a new child, to take necessary time away from work without taking a major financial hit, a major win for families and young children. Minnesota now joins 11 other states that have enacted paid family and medical leave.
Lawmakers also took an important step towards reducing the persistent fragmentation that often exists in early care and education programs. Currently, early education funding and programming in the state is governed by two agencies: the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Department of Education. Starting in July 2024, a new Department of Children, Youth and Families will go into effect in an effort to consolidate programs related to early learning and other programming related to child care, food assistance, youth opportunity, and child protection.
According to Representative Dave Pinto, “Programs that serve children and families are currently fragmented across multiple agencies; consolidating them with a strategic focus will help kids, families, and communities to thrive.” In making this consolidation, Minnesota is joining other states, such as Colorado and New Mexico, that have recently made similar changes in an effort to better align and coordinate their efforts on behalf of young children.
Lawmakers also heavily invested in existing programs to serve more children. For example, the state is putting more than $300 million in new spending toward early childhood initiatives, including an additional $252 million over two years for early learning scholarships. The state’s early learning scholarships help pay for child care and early education for families with low incomes by providing parents with an annual scholarship worth up to $8,500 to use at the child care or early education program of the parent’s choosing. The state is also investing $5 million over two years to award grants for Grow Your Own early childhood educator programs that recruit and prepare community members to enter the teaching profession.
Other highlights of the session include passage of a child tax credit worth up to $1,750 per child for families with lower incomes that is expected to cut child poverty in the state by one-third. The temporary 2021 expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit has been widely hailed as leading to a historic reduction in child poverty across the country. Also, lawmakers took steps to raise the reimbursement rate for providers participating in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program to the 75th percentile of the most recent rate survey. This change means the state will no longer have some of the lowest provider reimbursement rates in the country and should enable providers to offer higher quality care and education.
Overall, this session resulted in about $750 million in new funds for child care and early learning programs throughout the state. Much of this new funding was made possible by the fact that Minnesota is currently sitting on a record budget surplus of over $17 billion, along with decades of activism by early childhood advocates throughout the state, such as Jost, who came together to fight for common goals.
According to Jost, next steps for state advocates include getting the word out to families impacted by the changes. “If people aren't aware of what's available, that's also a problem. So as advocates we have a lot of work to do as far as building awareness of this.” Advocates will also work to ensure that funding continues for these programs as they continue to grow.
Jost’s advice for other state advocates pushing for similar changes in their states is straightforward, but important: “Don't give up. It just takes a lot of time, a lot of years. It's our responsibility to make sure as advocates that we are continuing to fight for what's right for children.”
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