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Can we at least agree on helping our most vulnerable children?

During a time of bitter division, what can cause Minnesotans to work together to build a better future?  I was pondering this difficult question recently as I scanned a diverse list of Minnesotans who, along with me, had recently signed a letter to Gov. Tim Walz.  

The letter makes it clear that the signers are speaking out as individuals, not on behalf of their respective organizations, but their diverse voices are strong, clear, and united.

As bitter partisanship has many state, local and federal governmental bodies virtually paralyzed, that letter was signed by respected Democrats like Roger Moe, Republicans like Dave Durenberger, and Independents like Tim Penny.  

It was signed by business leaders, such as General Mills’ former CEO Ken Powell, Ciresi Conlin founder Michael Ciresi, and Ecolab’s CEO Doug Baker.  It was also signed by prominent nonprofit leaders, such as the Northside Achievement Zone’s Sondra Samuels, Opportunity Partners’ Armando Camacho, and the Greater Twin Cities United Way’s John Wilgers.  

It brought together business leaders like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Doug Loon and the Minnesota Business Partnership’s Charlie Weaver with anti-poverty champions like me, People Serving People’s Daniel Gumnit, Second Harvest’s Allison O’Toole, the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center’s Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, and Catholic Charities’ Tim Marx.

Nancy Maeker
Nancy Maeker
It was endorsed by health care leaders like Health Partner’s CEO Andrea Walsh, Dr. Lisa Saul, and Allina’s CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler, as well as education leaders like former University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, Minnesota Comeback’s Rashad Turner, and former Minneapolis School Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.

The letter showcased a unique group of 13 former elected officials, 81 business leaders, 32 community leaders from many races, ethnicities, religions, regions and professions.  These are individuals who disagree with each other on many issues. As I read through that list of names, I kept wondering to myself “What’s different about this issue that brings such a diverse group of people together?”  

Helping vulnerable kids unifies

The answer is that the letter was all about Minnesota’s youngest and most vulnerable children, specifically a call for Gov. Walz to prioritize funding for bringing quality early learning programs to 35,000 low-income children under age 5 whose parents can’t access them.  

Why is that a unifying issue? No matter your walk of life or viewpoint, few blame those children for the difficult circumstances into which they were born. Few deny that Minnesota’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gaps are at the root of our most pressing societal and economic challenges, such as the need to have a more economically competitive, equitable, and just society. Few deny that a major root cause of those shameful achievement gaps, which open as early as age 1, are early learning opportunity gaps.

Therefore, helping these vulnerable 35,000 left-behind children has become a unifying issue.

By the way, it’s not just these Minnesota leaders who agree about the need to prioritize those 35,000 left-behind children. A March 2018 Morris Leatherman survey found that 84% of Minnesotans agreed that “we should help the children most likely to fall into achievement gaps early in life, to prevent them from falling behind.” 

Given that extraordinary level of agreement across so many societal lines, wouldn’t it be remarkable if Walz, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, and House Speaker Melissa Hortman could work together to champion this unifying cause? This is a problem that has been kicked down the road for far too long, and helping Minnesota’s 35,000 most vulnerable children would be a gift that keeps giving to our kids, grandkids, and great grandkids.

During a time when we have a $1.3 billion budget surplus, we can do this.

I’m not naïve.  I know we can’t reach agreement on every issue.  But maybe if we could start by focusing on this single point of agreement – helping our youngest and most vulnerable low-income children access quality early learning programs — it might lead to cooperation and progress on other issues as well.  

Nancy Maeker is the former executive director of A Minnesota Without Poverty (AMWP). While AMWP as an organization has recently dissolved, the commitment of its participants to early learning as a major step toward ending poverty remains strong. The referenced letter can be seen here.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dave Eischens on 01/23/2020 - 09:39 am.


  2. Submitted by lisa miller on 01/23/2020 - 10:07 am.

    Again, give us evidence based programming–research shows involving parents in the programming is the way to go to ensure gains remain through out the years vs only early child care.

  3. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 01/23/2020 - 02:14 pm.

    Why are we still debating this after all the research that has been presented to our Legislators over the last several decades? Could we, please, use a concerted effort and the money we have to address this NOW?!? Pretty, please?

    If we are going to have the educated workforce we need in this state to carry us forward economically, we will have to do a better job of fully educating a larger percentage of our population. Will thinking about our own self interest finally more this off the back burner?

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/23/2020 - 02:23 pm.

    I am not sure exactly what is being asked for here. And the fact it is couched in terms of “why don’t you like children?” makes me skeptical. What is the dispute? Who is against this? Its just a weird argument to me.

  5. Submitted by Jennie Thomas on 01/23/2020 - 07:32 pm.

    Whatever happened to “Success by Six”, a previous statewide initiative to get high quality preschool experiences and parent education to all vulnerable families in Minnesota? Of course we need to invest in preschool kids! I don’t remember the exact stats, but as I recall later spending on remedial education, incarceration and support of those unable to get a living wage job was reduced by about 5 times the cost of such programs. Kids who are ready for school can learn. Kids who do well in school are much more likely to see futures for themselves that are more attractive than drugs or gangs.

  6. Submitted by Jay Davis on 01/24/2020 - 09:42 am.

    The people signing this (including the author of the commentary) are agreeing to something both very specific and at the same time very vague. They seem to be endorsing “Early Learning Scholarships, as originally piloted” but at the same time they seem to be agreeing to this vague statement “We also would support any other approach [that satisfies a set of previously-mentioned research-based principles]…”

    How many of the signers know what “as originally piloted” means? This seems to suggest that the very popular Pathway II vouchers that help pay for school-based prek in lower-income communities would no longer be offered. Remember that the MEFL-funded evaluation of the scholarship program “as originally piloted” showed no difference between scholarship recipients and the comparison group in school readiness.

  7. Submitted by James Baker on 01/25/2020 - 12:29 pm.

    The University of Minnesota’s science-based Institute of Child Development has the academic, research and outreach mission that presumably are collectively intended to meet this need.

    If the political will existed, programming could be quickly established where the needs are greatest.

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