Minnesota's "No Child Left Inside" legislation had its detractors earlier this year, including lawmakers who disliked the naming similarity to "No Child Left Behind," the signature education reform of President George W. Bush.
But the $1.2 million grant program opened last week with an explosion of interest from around the state.
"Call it Merry Christmas if you want … it was a really good idea," said state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria, a key Republican on natural resources issues.
Phase One of No Child Left Inside kicked off at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Within just a few minutes, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) received a couple hundred grant applications. At 2:40 p.m., with DNR outreach coordinator Jeff Ledermann overwhelmed by nearly 350 proposals, the window was closed.
"The amount of requests have far exceeded the available funds," the DNR announced on its website. "We are no longer accepting grant applications. … Please consider applying for future phases of the grant program."
Ledermann said in an interview he was amazed to see such an abundance of people interested in connecting kids to fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities. Applications for the initial "mini grants" were written on simple forms for amounts ranging from $5,000 to $50,000. The sum of awards will total $200,000. Subsequent phases of the grant program will cater to more expensive initiatives that encourage matching funds.
"There's a big need, obviously," Ledermann said. "There's a wide range of organizations looking for opportunities to get kids outside.''
Private individuals and businesses were not allowed to compete. Instead, many applications were submitted by schools and nonprofits. Ledermann said a lot of requests were for equipment to get young kids — even preschoolers — into open space for archery training, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and other activities.
Ledermann said one priority of the program is to serve children who have limited opportunities to participate in natural resource pursuits. There are specific requirements that some program money go to schools to fund firearms safety, trap shooting, archery, hunting and fishing activities. Other priorities are for children to understand nature and the natural world.
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, D-Roseville, championed the bill as a way to engage a wide spectrum of grassroots groups that care about declining participation trends. For instance, Minnesota has experienced an 11% decline in the sale of resident fishing licenses over the past nine years despite a growing population.
"It's concerning, and most folks see the value of getting kids off screens and into the outdoors," Becker-Finn said.
She said there was probably less "pushback" against her bill in the Republican-controlled Senate than there was in the House.
Ingebrigtsen said there was squabbling within his caucus over the name of Becker-Finn's bill, but that debate took a back seat to the legislation's intent. The $1.2 million appropriation is small in comparison to the state's overall budget but a good first step, he said.
"People are obviously paying attention to it,'' he said.