In the fall of 2014, for the first time in Minnesota’s history, families throughout the state were able to send their children to all-day kindergarten, free of charge. Previously, about half of Minnesota students had access to free all-day kindergarten, while others attended fee-based programs that often cost their parents thousands of dollars a year. One year after the new state funding rolled out, the state Education Department reported that 99.6 percent of all Minnesota kids enrolled in kindergarten — more than 57,000 children — benefited from this $134 million investment in their future.
It was a watershed moment for Minnesota, but make no mistake: It was a long time coming. Mustering the support of the State Legislature to fund all-day kindergarten took years of advocacy. This work began long before I came to lead the Minneapolis Foundation nine years ago, and a host of education experts, school leaders, community organizations, and lawmakers worked together to make it happen.
Today, 99.6 percent of Minneapolis children - more than 57,000 kids - are enrolled in free, all-day kindergarten.
Some seeds take a long time to blossom. As Minnesota’s oldest community foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation played a unique role in tending this seed. In 2006, the Foundation issued a report, “Why Minnesota Needs All-Day, Every Day Kindergarten,” that highlighted the benefits of all-day kindergarten, including higher academic achievement, reduced achievement gaps between students of different races and family incomes, and a lower likelihood of students needing additional help in later years.
At the time of this report, we found that while nearly two-thirds of American children were already attending an all-day, every-day kindergarten, only one-third of children in Minnesota’s public schools were doing so.
Before the Minneapolis Foundation’s involvement, the share of Minneapolis children in all-day kindergarten was below that of children nationwide.
The report also noted that, since Minnesota only provided half-day funding for kindergarten, the vast majority of public schools that offered all-day programs had to pay the extra costs from other school funds. Many school districts couldn’t make this choice, could only offer limited sections of all-day kindergarten, or had to charge families a fee. In effect, Minnesota’s state policy and funding systems were shutting the door on many children who needed or wanted all-day kindergarten.
In a state that has long struggled with some of the starkest racial opportunity gaps in the nation, our findings grabbed attention. The report was cited in numerous local and regional media reports, raising awareness about the need to fund all-day kindergarten and building momentum for advocacy by many community partners.
Perhaps more significantly, the Foundation recognized an important opportunity to speak up as a direct advocate for the community. We hired a lobbyist and contacted legislators ourselves to voice our support for funding all-day kindergarten. We also gave lawmakers data about kindergarten programming at schools in their own legislative districts, so they would have a more detailed understanding of their constituents’ needs.
The fruits of our labors — and those of many, many other advocates — came slowly. Over a period of years, more lawmakers were convinced of the importance of all-day kindergarten. Incrementally, they found resources to increase state funding for it. Then came a breakthrough: In 2013, lawmakers approved an historic investment of $134 million to ensure that all Minnesota families would have the choice of sending their children to all-day kindergarten.
It was, and continues to be, a huge victory for Minnesota kids — and one the Foundation was honored to support. It’s also a great illustration of the role that community foundations and other philanthropic entities can play to effect change, beyond traditional grantmaking. Unlike many of the private foundations and smaller nonprofits that we partner with, the Minneapolis Foundation has the resources to produce in-depth research on local issues, and the ability to engage in direct lobbying in support of positive change.
In addition, the Foundation often acts as a convener, bringing people together from across the community to debate and address critical needs. We’re well-positioned to incubate great ideas and organizations, helping them get off the ground and gather steam in the broader community. In my tenure, the Foundation has played these roles on a variety of issues.
In the realm of education, I’m particularly proud of the early support we have provided to Minnesota Comeback, a group of funders, schools, and education organizations that have come together to develop a master plan for systems-level investments that will improve K-12 education in Minneapolis. The group recently released a study that analyzed enrollment, demographics, and school performance ratings, concluding that 30,000 students in Minneapolis need access to high-performing schools.
Building on our advocacy for all-day kindergarten, the Foundation has also worked hard to increase public funding for access to high-quality preschool and early learning programs. In partnership with an array of business and community leaders, led by MinneMinds — a coalition of more than 100 organizations — we helped secure $104 million in state funding over the past biennium for early learning scholarships that will help young children from low-income families.
Source: Minneapolis Foundation
As always, big challenges remain. At the Minneapolis Foundation, we won’t let up until every child in our community — regardless of their race, family income, or ZIP code — has access to an excellent education. On some days, we all probably wonder if our society will ever muster the political will to fully close the opportunity gaps that divide us. On those days, I’d remind you: Change takes time, and persistence over years.
Few people understand this better than the community leaders who spend their days tackling society’s biggest challenges. If you’re a lawmaker, a lobbyist, or a grassroots organizer, you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes big changes happen fast — major legislation, a dramatic shift in public opinion, a swift upturn in the economy. But in my experience, progress tends to happen in fits and starts, and many investments don’t pay dividends for years.
That’s especially true of the complex, thorny social issues that community foundations like the Minneapolis Foundation strive to address. Over the years, we’ve made strides on a variety of issues with the Twin Cities’ civic leaders, nonprofits, and philanthropists who share our commitment to building a stronger community. But our biggest goals haven’t changed: Closing the educational opportunity gap. Sustaining a strong regional economy with a workforce that reflects our growing diversity. Ensuring that everyone is empowered to participate in public decision-making. Building OneMinneapolis — a community where racial, social, and economic equity thrives.
Until we achieve those goals together, the Foundation will keep planting seeds.
Sandy Vargas is CEO and President of the Minneapolis Foundation.
The Minneapolis Foundation
Universal All-Day Kindergarten in Minnesota