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On early childhood education, Minnesota cannot be complacent

We are basking in the limelight of exciting momentum in the fight to address Minnesota’s unacceptable achievement gap, and rightly so. Gov.

We are basking in the limelight of exciting momentum in the fight to address Minnesota’s unacceptable achievement gap, and rightly so. Gov. Mark Dayton has made early childhood a priority and has committed to better results through improved coordination and efficiencies as illustrated by the creation of the Children’s Cabinet, the establishment of an Office of Early Learning and appointment of an Early Learning Council.

Most recently, Minnesota received three highly competitive federal education grants: a $15 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant for the University of Minnesota, a $28 million Promise Neighborhood grant for the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), and a $45 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, one of only nine to be issued to states. These grants are the result of impressive work at the state level and in our local communities where advocates, nonprofits and providers partner with the private and philanthropic sectors to achieve better results for Minnesota’s children.

We can celebrate, but we cannot allow ourselves to be content with these recent victories. We face a situation in Minnesota where only half of our children are ready for kindergarten. Which means that before the age of 5, half our future work force is already behind the curve, and it only becomes more difficult and expensive to get them caught up.

An 18 percent return on investment
Any business leader will tell you this is not sustainable. They would also say that investing in your work force is essential. And when the return on investment is 18 percent, as it is when we invest in early childhood care and education, the need to leverage that investment is even more crucial.

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Obtaining these recent federal grants delivers two messages to our community. First, when leaders across all sectors of government, business, and nonprofit align resources and devote themselves to overcoming challenges, we can achieve great things.

Second, our state has been provided an opportunity that we cannot afford to squander. The achievement gap plaguing our state is unacceptable and detrimental to Minnesota’s long-term health and economic vitality. We must align our support, resources, advocacy and public will to close the gap.

We need to leverage the current environment through cooperation, innovation and alignment to achieve exponential results for children. These federal grants were awarded based on an impressive coordinated effort put forth by multiple sectors – philanthropic, nonprofit, education and government. Leaders in these key sectors need to increase their commitment to a cooperative approach to tackling our state’s toughest issues.

Pilots must be linked, coordinated
The grants provide an opportunity to implement and expand innovative initiatives to dramatically improve education outcomes for low income children across the state. To fully leverage the impact of this opportunity, these three pilots need to be linked and coordinated over the next four years to assure that our state feels the highest possible return on this investment.

Minnesota’s commitment to investing in education is a commitment not just to our children but to society as a whole. With nearly $100 million of new funding from three federal grants, we must cooperate across sectors, focus on innovation, link and leverage these pilots, and make measureable progress in closing the achievement gap. As leaders of the philanthropic community, we accept this challenge and call on all sectors to align in support of our state’s children.

On Wednesday, more than 800 early-childhood leaders from across the state met in St. Paul to continue to move this issue forward. Together, these dedicated funders, nonprofits, advocates, academics and public officials will look toward future reform and aligned priorities for 2012.

Frank Forsberg is senior vice president, Community Impact & Innovation, at the Greater Twin Cities United Way. Karen Kelley-Ariwoola is vice president, Community Philanthropy, at the Minneapolis Foundation Denise Mayotte is the executive director of the Sheltering Arms Foundation. They write on behalf of the Start Early Funders Coalition for Children & Minnesotas Future.