Frank Forsberg is the senior vice president of Community Impact with Greater Twin Cities United Way and is one of the leaders of a coalition of eight philanthropic organizations in Minnesota that is working on developing framework on a program to make sure all children are ready for kindergarten by 2020.
The state Legislature wants every child going into kindergarten ready for school by 2020 and that's where Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) comes in.
A bipartisan effort at the state Capitol with Rep. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, as its primary backer brought the issue to the forefront and ECCE has developed a comprehensive agenda that includes guidelines as to how the state can meet the goal.
"It's an issue that's near and dear to many people - numerous organizations, the Legislature and many families," Forsberg said. "Our overall goal is we want to have all children in the state of Minnesota fully ready for kindergarten. By today's estimate using readiness assessments, the state's data indicate about half the children in Minnesota are ready."
The balance of children, Forsberg said, are not deemed fully ready to start school.
"We continue to be concerned that our children are oftentimes starting off at a disadvantage when they enter school," said Forsberg. "In some cases, the schools are able to help them catch up, but in many cases, this is just the first step in falling behind and contributing greatly to lower graduation rates in the state. We want them all to be as ready as they can be."
One challenge ECCE is facing as it ramps up its efforts is who will be running the state. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not seeking re-election, and many of his key appointees will also be completing their terms this year.
"It's a challenge and it makes it a little more difficult to move forward," Forsberg said. "As a coalition, we'll be reaching out and engaging the gubernatorial candidates and be in dialogue with them on how important we think early learning is for the future of the state. We want to get off on a really positive foot with whoever is elected governor."
The group has said it will commit financial resources in partnership with state funding recommendations to create and launch several initiatives critical to achieving its goal. Those recommendations include establishing a cabinet level office for early learning, a statewide report card, statewide screening and assessment of child development and a statewide public information campaign. The funding gap that remains will require an estimated $250 million to $290 million annually. Philanthropic organizations, the group said, currently issue an estimated $20 million annually in grants in the state for ECCE.
"We've tried to be very thoughtful about where we are with our current economic downturn," Forsberg said. "Over 10 years, we're not asking for a large increase in funding, now, or in the next budget year, because we just don't think that's very practical or appropriate. Those dollars we would get would be primarily used to increase access for very low-income children for high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs. In the meantime, the proposals we're putting forward - establishing a cabinet level office for early learning, a statewide report card and statewide screening and assessment of child development - are all things we think would benefit all children and parents in the state. We can do them for a very affordable price to take the initial steps because we want to phase it in over multiple years.
"As a group of philanthropic organizations, we would help provide some initial funding to help the program move forward so the state wouldn't have to take on too much," he added.
We applaud the coalition's efforts in attaining this important goal, but the onus eventually will fall back on the schools to make sure the children continue to thrive after kindergarten. And the question is, if the state comes up with the money to help continually fund the program will there be money available to help financially-strapped schools that will more than likely be dealing with tough cuts in the years ahead?