For inspiration, look to the Harlem Children's Zone. Then think bigger.
Imagine the entire population of Mora homeless. Imagine that not one of St. Louis Park's 40,000 residents has access to health care. Imagine that all of residents of Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center and Maple Grove are living in poverty.
Now imagine that they are all children. On Aug. 9, "Kids Count" released data showing that the number of children living in poverty in Minnesota grew by an astonishing 33 percent from 2001-2007. Right now, 2,700 children are homeless, 40,000 do not have health care and at least 112,000 children and counting are living in poverty. These numbers and the challenges they create for our schools -- as revealed in the recent No Child Left Behind reports -- should be jolting Minnesotans into action. We need to act to broadly change the future for our children.
But that is not what is happening in the governor's office. Instead, Tim Pawlenty's unallotments and the damage they will do have indelibly marked his pint-sized picture of Minnesota's future. Pawlenty has offered only small ideas. As opposed to dealing with the myriad issues that our children face as they attempt to learn in our schools, the current administration has chosen the flawed path of blaming schools for our society's failures.
For the sake of our collective future and for what is right, we can and must imagine a bigger, better Minnesota where all of our children don't just survive, but thrive. To speed our recovery from this challenging recession, we must make no small plans.
We can look for inspiration to successes around the country and the world. One model of success is the Harlem Children's Zone in New York. The Minneapolis Foundation recently sponsored a visit here by Geoffrey Canada, the Zone's leader. Their goal is to have all the children who grow up in the 100-block zone graduate from college. Harlem Children's Zone offers a Baby College for new parents, universal education for 4-year-olds, good public schools, chemical dependency and health counseling, and housing stability programs. All children there are wrapped in a variety of support systems designed to help them and their families succeed.
Some communities in Minnesota, with the help of foundations, are starting to work on similar approaches. These initiatives are a laudable start, but they raise the moral question of where the boundary lines for the new children's zones should be drawn? Which kids get supported on their path to the American dream, and which kids do we leave out?
The right answer is that the whole state should be the Minnesota Children's Zone. No less than in 100 blocks of Harlem, the goal for all children in Minnesota should be that they will all graduate from college and get their chance at living the American dream.
No one should doubt that we can achieve this goal. In a competitive world, we must achieve it. Step one is to invest in innovative early childhood education, including proven ideas like age three to grade three schools. By properly funding Minnesota's schools, we can boost each child's path to success in college. And by creatively reorganizing how we spend health care and housing dollars, we can ensure that families are healthy and stable enough to help their children succeed.
The Minnesota Children's Zone can succeed. It will need the right leadership, the courage to do right by our kids, and the undaunted dedication to get numerous agencies and levels of government to work together. We'll need the help of volunteers and communities and the commitment of families most in need of help.
Our state, and especially our children, deserve nothing less than big plans for a bright future filled with opportunities to succeed. The days of small plans are over. It is time to make big dreams into reality.
Steve Kelley, a former state senator, is director of the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and is exploring a campaign for governor.