Although we may hear a lot these days about division within our state, there is at least one issue that historically unites us: a shared belief in the value of quality education for all children, beginning in their earliest years.
Minnesota has a rich history of supporting education from pre-K through postgraduate studies. For more than two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, the state invested heavily in public education, according to the Foundation for Child Development's case study, "Into the Fray: How a Funders Coalition Restored Momentum for Early Learning in Minnesota."
Then we hit a roadblock. By 2008, public funding for early childhood had fallen by nearly 20 percent, while Minnesota children living in poverty had nearly doubled and the number of impoverished families drastically increased. Yet the state chose to divert fiscal attention from critical programs for our most at-risk early learners.
As we've navigated away from supporting our youngest learners, we've seen the educational achievement gap grow to become one of the worst in the nation. This gap in opportunities as well as achievement threatens our economic security and deprives thousands of families of a better future.
We must now collectively reinvest with a renewed sense of urgency to advance the education of our youngest children.
The good news is that today we are witnessing the elevation of this movement. It includes the launch of four Transformation Zones (Itasca County Transformation Zone, Northside Achievement Zone, St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and White Earth Reservation) through the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant; the creation of the Minnesota Office of Early Learning; the Parent Aware early childhood quality rating system's establishment and statewide expansion by 2015, and most recently, new annual state investments of nearly $28 million in early learning scholarships.
Moreover, a growing chorus of voices — including the Greater Twin Cities United Way, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota Initiative Foundations and the state Office of Early Learning — recognizes that efforts to support kindergarten readiness must also extend into the early elementary years to ensure that all children read proficiently by third grade.
The movement received yet another big boost recently when the Blandin Foundation announced its largest grant commitment ever — $21 million through the Invest Early Initiative — extending its decadelong investment in early childhood programming by another 10 years. Thanks to Blandin's initial investment nearly a decade ago, Invest Early has helped change thousands of lives in Itasca County by providing comprehensive wraparound services to help young children succeed. By increasing access to early childhood education, and coordinating services with area elementary schools, health providers and parent educators, Invest Early is helping families to build brighter futures.
The Blandin Foundation's long-standing commitment reflects our collective obligation as keepers of our children's trust. The time is now: let's move swiftly to close the achievement gap by continuing to invest in our youth. To that end, Greater Twin Cities United Way and the McKnight Foundation, along with an expanding roster of nearly 100 other organizations, comprise the MinneMinds Coalition. With statewide participation of businesses, leading philanthropic organizations, parents and providers, MinneMinds is guided by the vision that children need better access to high-quality early care and education — from birth through third grade — enabling all to succeed in school and in life.
We are on the right track, but we've got a long way to go. Congratulations to the Blandin Foundation for continuing to be a beacon of optimism and leadership.
Sarah Caruso is president and chief executive officer of Greater Twin Cities United Way. Kate Wolford is president of the McKnight Foundation.