Minnesota Early Childhood Summit
Minneapolis: Jan. 28, 2009

Listen to the speech:  http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/02/09/midday2/                                            Thank you, Madam Speaker, Mr. Majority Leader, former Governor Quie, members of the Legislature, Mr. Campbell and, indeed, all of you. This is a most distinguished audience. That you are here sends a message: A message that you are leaders – people with the capacity and the courage to “dare to do mighty things,” in the words of one of our greatest Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. You are powerful people, first in the spirit of how Henry Ford once defined power: “If you think you can do a thing, or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

I have something “mighty” to talk about today. You can “dare” to do this, and if you do so, you will have made an investment of great return and of enduring value for the families and children – and, yes, of the very future – of this splendid state. Of you could say, “These are tough times in America. Didn’t we hear just yesterday from the governor about how we must make up a $5 billion budget deficit? How can we possibly afford to do this?” I tell you that there was never a better time to proceed on this path than now.

In pursuit of that theme, I want to do three things this afternoon:


  1. Tell you where I am coming from.
  2. Give you some sense of my perspective on Minnesota and how this squares with my sense of my own state and our country.
  3. Give you real-life inspiration of how this has been done elsewhere, and how it could be done here.

But what is “it”? Said quite plainly, Minnesota, despite its historically progressive history on so many topics, is lagging behind other places in developing a real system for high-quality early development, care and learning. Through the leadership and hard work of this Early Childhood Legislative Caucus, you have the fundamentals ready to go. But “ready to go” is not doing “it.” It is your opportunity, in this very legislative session, is implement the vision that has been put together for a Quality Rating and Improvement System statewide.

But I begin by telling you a bit about myself. Know, first, that I am not an “expert.” What I am, or was until I retired a decade ago this month, was a someone who loved journalism so much that in 35 years at seven newspapers as reporter, editor or publisher, I missed not one day of work (which, I must acknowledge, is surely the mark of a truly obsessed human being!). But, then again, how many people interview the President of the United States on Air Force One, the dictator of Cuba for five hours in Havana, almost countless heads of state (including one soon after assassinated), the good and the bad, rogues and rebels, Nobel Peace Prize winners, not to mention all sorts of people whose names would never cross your mind? I was – and am — someone with an idealistic soul, someone who for all those years found it a privilege to come to work and see what that day might bring and what the newspaper might do to make a difference for the better in people’s lives.

I was then the publisher of The Miami Herald, recruited by Florida’s Lawton Chiles to be on the Governor’s Commission on Education where the governor asked me to lead the “school readiness” task force – a topic about which I had never heard to that point. Yes, you have before you the father of five as well as a grandfather. Yes, my children were raised according to the principles of high-quality health and education and nurturing, even if I did not know of “principles” undergirding the early childhood years. What I came to understand re-energized my life and led me to “retire” from a business I had loved intensely.

Back then, for example, I first heard of the brain research that underscores my message today. In illustration, I give you just one sentence from a Newsweek magazine story: “The helpless, seemingly clueless infant staring up at you from his crib – limbs flailing, drool oozing – has a lot more going on inside his head than you ever imagined.”

I am not arguing that the only learning years of one’s life are to be found in the earliest years — people do learn all their lives — but rather that there are windows wide open during those early years, and never again will so many windows be open quite so wide. A wise state and wise people would truly know that, and invest accordingly.

The kindergarten teachers in your almost 1,000 public elementary schools (teachers who already know that half of your entering kindergarten students are not fully prepared) see so frequently the tragedy of the student who already feels like a failure. The smartest teachers will tell you that the truly crucial variable is how good a shape – socially, emotionally, cognitively, physically – these children arrive in the classroom. We’d burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to formal school far more children eager and ready to learn.

My mission in life and in this cause is moral, but my arguments begin with the practical. Public education is the real world for 90 percent of your children, and America’s. The wisest path to public education reform in our country is to deliver the children in far better shape to formal school. That is what early investment is all about. It is neither socialism…nor the creation of a “nanny state,” but rather simple decency and wisdom and what our country is about when we are at our best.

In my own early childhood “education,” I read a great deal, visited places like France and Italy to learn more, came to know the research, and continue to follow it closely – one example being the national study that told us that if 50 first graders have problems reading, then 44 of them will still have problems reading in the fourth grade.

Armed with such knowledge, I came to believe the tragedy of early childhood unpreparedness was preventable. I came to believe that however good our intentions, we would never make more than incremental change unless we could create real “public will” for real change, most particularly the public awareness on the part of parents for what their children really needed. I came to believe that we must work on many fronts because children in their early years need all the basics – and all must be high quality because only real quality makes a real difference in outcomes for children.

I came to believe that we could never build a real “movement” for “school readiness” unless we could do so for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between. Building a “movement” is not about “those” children “over there,” but rather about all children. Yes, many children will need extra investment, but all children need the quality fundamentals.

Second, I promised to give you my own perspective on Minnesota and how this squares with my sense of my own state and our country.

I start by acknowledging that you clearly know far more than I about the realities for your 5 million people and the perhaps 70,000 babies born here each year. But I do know enough to be impressed by many high-quality state early childhood programs, to be impressed by innovative models such as “Invest Early” in Grand Rapids,” impressed by the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation’s groundbreaking research, impressed by the business community’s commitment to high-quality early learning, impressed by the contributions of Art Rolnick and the Federal Reserve Bank, impressed by the proactive work of foundations and nonprofits, including the Minneapolis Foundation and United Way.

I know enough about your past – with a recorded history going back 3 1/2 centuries to explorers, missionaries and fur traders – to see what is possible in the future. Minnesota Territory was formed way back in 1849 by people with vision, who insisted that free public schools would be available to all those between 4 and 21 years old. That is a great vision to build from. You have been tested, and risen every time to the moment. You have prevailed through bust and boom and blizzards…through economies that went the gamut from wheat and lumber to iron ore to retailing, medicine and technology.

Yours is a state with room enough for Hubert Humphrey and Coya Knutson and Roy Wilkins and Bronko Nagurski and Bob Dylan and Judy Garland and Charles Schulz and Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis and so many more. A state with the wisdom to remember the past — and the energy to look to the future.

I love Garrison Keillor’s words about Minnesota: “What appeals to me about Minnesota is that it has a stubbornness. It has a persistence. It treasures its own landscape. People who live in Minnesota really love to stay…. They’re not people who are going to fold their tent in another year and go elsewhere.”

A state and people of such character simply ought to insist on being in the front ranks of “school readiness” in America. You are not. Not yet, that is.

Yes, I know that you are ahead of many states, including my own, in many measures – for instance, in high school and college graduation rates, in the statistics for low birth weight and infant mortality. Yet I also know that 25 percent of your pregnant women do not receive adequate prenatal care…that you have more than 9,000 cases of children abused and neglected each year in this state…that a parent pays much more in Minnesota for a 4 year old’s child care, even frequently mediocre care, than he or she would pay for tuition at a significant public university – the University of Minnesota, for instance. I also know that an estimated 80,000 Minnesota children have severe emotional problems, and that just one in five of those gets treatment….that a quarter of your third graders are reading behind where they minimally ought to be…that a quarter of your children live in poverty or near-poverty. And so forth and so on.

And if any of this feels more “statistical” than “real,” I note just two outcomes that speak to the future of the children of Minnesota:

  1. A child who can read by the third grade is unlikely ever to be involved with the criminal justice system.
  2. Four of five incarcerated juvenile offenders read two years or more below grade level. Indeed, a majority of them are functionally illiterate.

Or perhaps I ought to use the French author Victor Hugo’s 19th century words: “He who opens a school door…closes a prison.”

Now while I know that Miami and Minnesota have so much in common, I am also aware of the differences.

I live in one of the biggest, most challenging places in America. A place of wealth and poverty. Beauty and misery. Our median household income is $5,000 below the national average while yours exceeds that by $15,000. The 2.5 million people in my county alone make us larger than 16 of these United States and just about half the population of your state. You would tell me of your appreciation for your growing diversity, encompassing urban-suburban-rural communities. And I do note the growing minority proportion of your population. But when all is said and done, I note that 88 percent of Minnesotans are non-Hispanic white. Now listen to the Miami-Dade numbers: 60 percent Hispanic, 21 percent African American or black (frequently not the same in Greater Miami), 19 percent non-Hispanic white (and only 15 percent of the babies). In your state, fewer than 2 percent of your residents were born in another country; in Miami-Dade, more than half of us were born in another country. We in Miami are living the “great American adventure.” What we unite on — through all our challenges of poverty, of culture, of language — is children.

So, No. 3, what can be learned from elsewhere? First, what you have before you in Minnesota is another key part in a national movement. Early learning investment, let us remember, is among the principal thrusts that our new President has advocated. You can see that in Smart Start in North Carolina, in First Five in California, and in pockets all across America.

But I am going to bring it home – to my own community of Miami-Dade and my own state of Florida with its population three and a half times yours.

If you came to know me well, you would find that I am a not-unusual blend of feeling secure and insecure – thinking I can do something, sometimes not sure I can – but generally eager to try. So I give you the following not in the spirit of boastfulness, but rather in example of just what is possible if you have the leadership and can build the public will (remembering, by the way, that one of baseball’s famous “philosophers,” Dizzy Dean, once told us all: “Braggin’ ain’t braggin’ if it’s true!”).

Now you will not be surprised to know that I do not come from a state famous for investment in education or children or health, nor from a community well known for “trust.” Indeed, in Miami-Dade we pay county commissioners, 13 of them, $6,000 a year to watch over a $7.5 billion budget. Yet I give you four examples – and could give you many more – of what can be done with real leadership, real vision and the building of public will:

  1. With the principal leadership from my own community, Florida passed a constitutional amendment for free, voluntary, available-to-all prekindergarten for all 4 year olds. This year, 135,000 of Florida’s 4 year olds are in this program, and the state is spending almost $400 million extra in investment. The amendment, which passed with a 59-41 percent margin, never would have prevailed had we focused only on some children, no matter how worthy.
  2. We have a law in Florida – any state could have such a law – that lets voters in counties decide if they want to raise their property taxes to provide a dedicated funding source for children. My own community first tried to do this back in 1988. Good people led the campaign, arguing that the community ought to help the most needy. It failed, 2-1. In 2002, we made the case that this would be about everyone’s child, while certainly acknowledging and understanding the obvious: That is, some children and families need and should receive more help. We passed it, 2-1. We also put a “sunset” on it, telling the voters they could try it for five years, and then decide if they would like to keep it in perpetuity. But now 2008 was upon us, and the climate had turned scary. Mine is a community that is a poster child for this country’s housing and economic crisis. It would be awfully easy to vote against any taxes – and, make no mistake about it, The Children’s Trust is a tax. But what did happen? The people of Miami-Dade voted to reauthorize The Children’s Trust in perpetuity – with an 85 percent favorable margin and victory in 764 of 764 precincts — and meaning at least $100 million extra a year forever to invest in early intervention and prevention. This audience is full of elected leaders; when is the last time you heard of such an overwhelming vote on anything, much less a tax? It is all solid evidence of what can be done – if we have the vision and the will. And don’t tell me Miami is easy!
  3. Under the banner of “Ready Schools Miami” – with extra funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – we launched a bold initiative, in full partnership with the country’s fourth largest public school system, to improve the quality of all early learning centers and enhance student learning and teacher practice in all elementary schools. One exciting component via the University of Florida: A job-embedded master’s degree program delivered online and onsite with the support of a professor-in-residence. The master’s program is offered free to teachers who make a five-year commitment to the school.
  4. And No. 4, which speaks quite directly to your own child-care quality efforts. Moving on a very similar path to what is before you now, just a year ago we launched what we call Quality Counts. By the end of this year, with a significant investment from The Children’s Trust and others, incentives for higher-quality, one-through-five-star child care sites will be part of nearly 500 child care sites enhancing the lives of almost 30,000 children. We built on best practices from Quality Rating Improvement Systems in other states, developed a comprehensive data system, and are linking these child care centers with the schools these children will go to kindergarten. We are offering shared training and working on curriculum alignment between early learning centers and public schools.

I could say more, but you have heard enough so that my point is made. You in Minnesota want all children to be ready for formal school no later than 2020, and surely you truly want to do it before then. And you could. In what is before you, the pieces are in place and ready to go. This is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. Leadership is critical. Your leadership. There is no investment you could make with a greater return.

It is all about quality. Real quality. It is about what you want for all children. It is the secret to genuine workforce development. The secret to your state’s competitive edge.

It is not taking over what parents are supposed to do. But it is making sure that parents have the support to give them the best chance to raise successful children, and adults.

This is not about creating new programs…of building more “silos.” Because the research tells us so clearly what works, you can only do this by building a real “system.” What your Early Childhood Legislative Caucus has created is a framework that puts high-quality standards and child outcomes front and center of all your state investments in early learning. That means, in the short term while dollars are sparse, you are investing in quality and, longer term, that you have the wisest path to more investment when times get better.

I have great faith in this progressive state…great faith in your commitment to children…great faith in your wisdom and decency on behalf of children.

The consequences of inaction and inadequacy are real. To quote a New York Times editorial written more than a century ago: “Given one generation of children property born and wisely trained…what a vast proportion of human ills would disappear from the face of the earth.”

Do I think this is easy? I do not. But you and I are obligated to succeed for the future for the futures of children and our schools are at stake. “For these are all our children,” wrote the author James Baldwin. “We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

I have great faith, my friends, in what you can – and will – do.

Thank you, and God bless our children, God bless us all.                                                                                                                          




 Tell us your story, comment, or perspective.  If this is worth sharing with others, press the share this button below and send it to someone you know.