Big Decisions about Littlest Minnesotans

The following column is appearing in a number of APG of Eastern Minnesota newspapers during January, 2019.

Big decisions about the littlest Minnesotans


Photo credit – Head Start


Many working and low-income parents with infants or preschool children face tough decisions, whether they live in Little Falls or Lakeville, St. Louis Park or Stillwater.

Child care options often are limited, and the best programs usually are very expensive. So is prenatal care. Arthur Rolnick, a former Federal Reserve Bank economist now at the University of Minnesota, recently pointed out that more than 35,000 Minnesota youngsters from low-income families don’t have access to strong early childhood programs. This is despite research showing that high-quality early childhood programs working with low-income families and their children have powerful long-term impacts.

Politicians have noticed. In their campaign platform, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan declared, “Children and families are our top priority.” (More about their goals is here:

Some of the biggest decisions the 2019 Minnesota Legislature will make involve some of the state’s youngest, smallest citizens. Conversations with two key legislators, one a Republican, one a DFLer, suggest that they agree on at least some priorities. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairs the Senate’s E-12 Finance and Policy Committee. Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, chairs the Minnesota House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division.

Both told me recently, as Sen. Nelson, put it, “I want to see every Minnesota youngster well prepared for kindergarten.” Both want to support high-quality options to help achieve this goal. And both seem to agree that, as Rep. Pinto said, “There’s very powerful research about the value of good prenatal care and for helping infants get a great start.”

Gov. Walz agrees about the importance of good child care and education. In their platform, the Walz/Flanagan team wrote that lack of access to good child care “impacts parents’ ability to work, families’ ability to achieve financial security, and children’s readiness for kindergarten. … There is no smarter investment for our state than ensuring our littlest citizens have access to safe, robust care whether from their parents or child care programs that allow parents to continue to work and remain independent.”

In his Jan. 7 inauguration speech, Walz shared his belief that “education is the great equalizer of society. Education unleashes untapped potential. Education conjures the magic of promising beginnings and the grace of second chances. Putting a young child on a yellow bus to pre-K in St. Cloud can prevent him from riding a prison bus to Stillwater. … Every child deserves a high-quality education.”

Minnesota has debated for decades how to best organize and support early childhood and child care. Over the last eight years, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature compromised. The state provided enough money so that every public school, district and charter could offer full-day kindergarten to all students. More money was allocated to provide early childhood scholarships for children from low-income families and for child and dependent care tax credits. But as mentioned earlier, tens of thousands of low-income Minnesota families still don’t have access to strong early childhood programs.

There’s never enough money to do everything we’d like to do. So we have to establish priorities. Hopefully, the governor and legislators can agree on using the best available research to support both low- and middle-income families with infants and young children. That will help, as Walz explained, unleash youngsters’ “untapped potential” and “allow parents to continue to work and remain independent.”

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Nathan can be reached at

Photo credit – Head Start