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Legislative testimony: MN House Education Finance and Ed Committees 2013

Kathleen Annette, M.D., Blandin Foundation president and CEO

Testimony before a joint hearing of the Minnesota House
Education Finance and Education Policy Committees – “The World’s Best Workforce”

What are we all waiting for?

Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013


Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this conversation, to bring to you the perspectives of
Minnesota’s very strong non-profit sector, seasoned with the voices of Minnesota’s communities.

I am Kathleen Annette, president and CEO of Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  A private foundation, Blandin is in the business of strengthening rural Minnesota communities by engaging in public policy issues such as education and broadband, by training community leaders throughout the state, and by supporting with grants great work throughout the state.

As one who grew up on an Indian reservation, surrounded by poverty, I know from personal experience that educational success eludes far too many children.  It’s heartbreaking!

I can also tell you that post-secondary education makes all the difference.  I was the first Ojibwe Chippewa woman in Minnesota to become a medical doctor, and it took a whole lot of people who believed I could do it, every step of the way.

I like to think Blandin Foundation is in the hope business.  And that started with founder Charles Blandin, when he thought about how the considerable wealth he had built by the end of his life could be used to build and sustain quality of life for others in Itasca County, where his paper mill was based.

Charles Blandin was an investor in people and opportunity.  And it was personal.  Despite his success as a teacher, a newspaper entrepreneur, publisher of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and owner of the Blandin Paper Company, Mr. Blandin never was able to go to school beyond fourth grade.  His life journey was complicated by deep poverty, yet he found people who believed in him and his potential.

Belief in the success of every child is why we incubated and continue to support Itasca County’s Invest Early program, which has become a national model for early childhood learning for at-risk kids and families.

This evening I have been asked to address risks and benefits for Minnesota.  What happens if we stand still, what’s possible if we work together?

I can tell you that communities and organizations throughout Minnesota see the challenges, they understand the risks.  The benefits have long been obvious.  And they have moved on to working together to forge new paths in support of the state’s human capital, our people.

Minnesota is waiting for your bold leadership to help move work forward.  To blast through artificial barriers to innovation.  To focus on systems, not just projects, engaging the full spectrum of milestones that leads to a child’s success.  To rally around outcomes that matter most.

My message for you tonight is that the cornerstone for success in our economies, is the success of our children—all children.  The world’s best workforce will require all of us, and the best of all of us.

Over the past year, I have been in conversations with Minnesota communities about their hopes for their futures.  Without fail, communities tell me that most important are opportunities for their kids—all their kids—and a vibrant local economy.

Our statewide Rural Pulse survey confirms this.  Ever since our first survey fifteen years ago, Minnesota communities have named jobs and education among the top three issues they care most about.

Given the challenges before us, here are some of what Minnesota’s nonprofits and communities have learned:

First, invest early and sustain those investments through the student’s early career.

Achievement gaps begin long before Kindergarten, and the opportunity to effectively support at-risk kids and families begins to close by age 5.  Workforce development, in fact, must begin before Kindergarten starts.

There is no doubt that early childhood investment pays.  Wilder Research estimates that the lifetime economic value of investing in healthy development and school readiness for each low-income child at risk of school failure in Minnesota is an estimated $55,928.

How many more ways does this case need to be made?  My colleague, Mary Kosak, Blandin Foundation’s lead staff on education policy, testified in front of the House Education Finance committee a few weeks ago.  I understand she asked, “What are you waiting for?”  I would echo her passion
and ask, “What are we all waiting for?”

Evidence of return on investment extends beyond early childhood.  The Growth and Justice organization convened Minnesota leaders to explore what impact a $1 billion well-placed portfolio of investments would have in increasing a student’s likelihood of attaining post-secondary success.

A huge investment, yes.  That would more than pay for itself—through $500,000 in higher lifetime earnings for each additional graduate and $1 million from increased revenues and lower social costs.  This has been well documented for in their report, “Smart Investments for Minnesota Students.”

Point number Two:  Build on existing assets.

There is no need to reinvent wheels here.  We can all learn from proven models.

The Twin Cities, Itasca County and several other Minnesota communities, for example, have committed to the success of children holistically, from cradle to career.  They are building a common vision, community will and using metrics to stay on track.

Imagine– this morning in Grand Rapids, teams of area leaders stood in front of 600 local educators gathered in the packed high school auditorium and pledged to stand with them in promising success for every child.  It was an historic moment, everybody from business to the school superintendents, wearing their Student Success t-shirts and taking a bold and very public stand.

Even in times of limited resources, these community members see through others’ successes and failures what might be possible.

Support their innovation.   Appreciate their risk-taking.  And take some of the equally bold steps that only the state can take.

Point number three: Relationships matter.

Real possibilities for the world’s greatest workforce live in the ability and willingness for leaders at every level to bring together systems, to braid support, to collaborate so that every child has the best shot at success.

Fixing one point on the workforce continuum—such as better after-school programs—wouldn’t make much difference unless all parts of the continuum improve.    And there is no way that one organization—no
matter how big–can do this alone.

In a former life, I was a deputy director for the National Indian Health Service.  I spent 25 years working to
strengthen communities across this country.  No matter how small or large, no matter how wealthy or poor, I can tell you that when communities are hopeful and open to possibilities, they claim their futures and make ambitious choices.

“The World’s Best Workforce” is that kind of ambitious choice.

  • Invest early and stay with kids through their early careers.
  • See and support innovation; help scale it up.
  • Recognize that no organization—even the great State of Minnesota—can make a lasting difference
    alone.  A spectrum of investors and well-tended relationships can.
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