Welcome to the inaugural post of GreatBigBlog's new series, State of the CAN. Every week we'll talk with one of our CAN executive directors to hear about the state of their CAN, including the hot education issues in their state, how their CAN is getting involved and other updates from the front lines of the local movement they're building to give every kid in their state a great public school.
This week I interviewed Vallay Varro, the founding executive director of MinnCAN, about her team's post-legislative campaign work and how MinnCAN is supporting Minnesota's bid for $50 million in federal dollars as part of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant competition.
MinnCAN just finished up its first legislative campaign with a perfect score, having won all three of your campaign goals. What's next? What are the current hot-button education issues in Minnesota?
Never a dull moment when it comes to Minnesota education. The Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test scores were just released last week, reaffirming what we already know: Minnesota is making small gains for white students but struggling to serve minority students well. In reading, for example, 82 percent of white 10th-graders are proficient in reading, compared to 55 percent of American Indian, 53 percent of Hispanic and 47 percent of African American students in the same year. Minnesota demographics are quickly changing, and we can’t afford to be complacent when whole groups of our children aren’t mastering basic subjects like reading.
Meanwhile, MinnCAN is monitoring the various taskforces charged with implementing some of the policies passed during the most recent legislative session. While policy wins are important, they are just the tip of the iceberg. With policy, the devil is always in the details, especially when it comes to actual implementation. MinnCAN is keeping a close eye on things to make sure that the reforms are implemented in a way that will make a true difference for our kids.
Is there an issue MinnCAN is particularly focused on right now?
Right now MinnCAN is most focused on Minnesota’s application for the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant. The state could win up to $50 million in federal dollars to support and expand the quality pre-K initiatives we’ve begun over the last several years.
How is MinnCAN getting involved with the application?
We are working to coordinate a letter of support with a broad cross sector of “unusual” stakeholders who don’t usually get invited to the table on early ed issues but care a great deal about because of the services they provide, whether it’s education or social services. This is what we do best: bringing the voices of regular Minnesotans to bear on the issue of closing the achievement gap.
Who are some of the “unusual suspects” who have signed on so far?
We are working with the application planning committee to reach out to organizations such as the ITASCA Project, the Minnesota Historical Society, the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office, various juvenile detention alternative and social service organizations, civil rights groups like the African American Leadership Forum, NAACP, and the Department of Human Rights, and social entrepreneurs such as the Social Venture Partnership.
What's the project's biggest challenge?
Minnesota will be competing against 35 other states for these funds. To make our application stand out, we need to show the application review committee that there is local support for these initiatives and that the people of Minnesota are committed to including quality pre-K as a part of the achievement gap-closing work. Generating a broad swathe of support is never easy, but like I said before, it’s what MinnCAN does best.
Why does this matter for Minnesota?
Even after 50 years research and over ten years of advocacy, Minnesota has gained little traction on this issue. MinnCAN launched earlier this year to turn the conversation around Minnesota’s achievement gap into a fruitful one and to ask Minnesotans to effectively lend their voices for change. We know that investing in quality early education is a key strategy in making sure every Minnesota child is afforded the best start in their academic career, and for so long this goal has eluded us. Today we can proudly say we worked together to create the public will that enabled our policy makers to act with the best interest of our students in mind.
How does this fit into MinnCAN's broader strategic vision?
It’s a part of our achievement gap-closing work. We want to make sure parents have access to high-quality programs for their kids, because research shows that high-quality programs can put children on a lifelong path to success. The Race to the Top grant initiative is aimed at supporting the policies that will help all children access these programs.
How can regular Minnesotans get involved?
Sign up on our mailing list: www.MinnCAN.org/actnow/join. By signing up, you’ll get updates every time something big happens, right when it happens, and find out what you can do to get involved. There’s no better way to stay in the loop.