Building upon 50CAN’s approach to developing advocacy campaigns, we launched a new series that moves from theory to practice through campaign case studies. Last week we examined the final campaign I worked on at ConnCAN before launching 50CAN. This week we examine one of the founding campaigns in 50CAN’s first year: MinnCAN’s 2011 campaign.
In the spring of 2010 we started talking with community leaders in Minnesota about how we could support the creation of a new advocacy campaign focused on innovative policies that would help give all of Minnesota’s children access to a high-quality education. By December 2010, this effort had a name—MinnCAN—a founding advisory board chaired by Sandy Vargas and a founding executive director, Vallay Varro.
Sandy and Vallay had spent the summer and fall talking to students, teachers, parents and community leaders about the most pressing education issues in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and had come away with nearly 10,000 ideas for what needed to change. With one month before their first legislative session they had some hard choices to make. To reflect the urgency of the work ahead they called their inaugural campaign “School Emergency in Effect.”
Goals and Strategy
During their listening tour, Vallay—a former preschool teacher, school board member, education policy advisor for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and mother of a preschool child—was struck by how often the need for quality preschool was brought up by parents. Her research confirmed what she was hearing from parents: only 1.5 percent of Minnesota three- and four-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded early education programs, one-tenth the national average.
Expanding access to preschool emerged as a possible top goal for the 2011 campaign. At the same time, there was a promising pilot program supported by the Minnesota business community. This targeted program provided access to preschool programs for low-income families linked to a four-star rating system but it was due to sunset in the coming year. What if this quality rating system could be connected to a big new investment to expand access to quality preschool across the state?
Vallay and the MinnCAN board developed a two-part plan to ensure that Minnesota seized this window of opportunity.
Both the newly-elected Democratic governor of Minnesota and the newly-elected Republican legislative majority had publicly expressed support for the idea of investing in preschool and a statewide quality rating system. The challenge was to ensure it didn’t get lost in the partisan fighting that had already sparked before the session had opened. Therefore, for their top-tier strategy the MinnCAN team chose elite negotiation with a focus on three tactics: 1) lobbying, 2) coalition building and 3) legislative briefs.
At the same time, they knew it would be dangerous to count too much on these inside tactics. Therefore, they also went to work on a second-tier social movements strategy with three additional tactics: 1) spokespeople, 2) storytelling and 3) mobilization.
Lobbying. Equipped with the facts about the positive impact expanding quality preschool would have on Minnesota kids, the MinnCAN team went to work on lobbying the governor and the legislature. The prospects initially looked good. In their meetings with the governor’s team and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, everyone had expressed support for expanding quality pre-K.
Yet almost out of nowhere the whole effort was derailed. Behind the scenes a small group of activists who had successfully stopped high school graduation standards in 2003 launched an all-out disinformation campaign against an expansion of preschool for low-income families tied to a quality rating system, claiming the program was anti-family. Within 24 hours, the rating system went from a sure thing to a distant memory as a small number of senators and representatives threatened to stop the entire education omnibus bill from moving forward unless the rating system was removed. Vallay put out a statement declaring that the effort would “tighten the blindfold over Minnesota preschool parents’ eyes.”
A MinnPost article captured what happened next, “With support from both parties and several policy-advocacy groups with high-profile business and civic leaders on their boards, it seemed like the one arena that might be immune from politics” yet “the bill died in a March dawn-hours vote at the hands of social conservatives who feared it would create a ‘nanny state’ that would attempt to replace parents.”
Doubling down on their outreach to legislative allies, MinnCAN and its coalition partners succeeded in saving $4 million in increased funding for preschool for low-income families but the rating system that would ensure it was quality preschool couldn’t be saved.
It was time for Plan B.
Spokespeople. MinnCAN was determined to not let the quality rating system die. Over the next 36 hours it organized an open letter to the governor urging him to do everything in his power to ensure the quality rating system became a reality. More than 40 community leaders and local policy makers signed on. But with time running out before the July 29th deadline for putting a statewide system into place, they knew they needed more. The MinnCAN team got to work on a social movement strategy grounded in parents’ right to information and a clear call to action for the governor to implement the program by executive order.
Building upon the image of a blindfold stopping parents from making informed choices, Vallay sent an email to MinnCAN’s growing group of supporters with the subject line “Why am I blindfolded?” She made a simple request: join me by sending in your own photo and share why the governor should lift the blindfold on Minnesota parents.
Over the next few days photos poured in from parents across the state. To make sure these photos weren’t ignored, the MinnCAN team designed a powerful advertising campaign that ran around the clock on Politics Minnesota, a news site frequented by Minnesota lawmakers, with the photos as the centerpiece. In a final push, they made a photo book of all the participants and hand delivered it to the governor’s office.
As with every successful campaign, this was truly a team effort. By working in a broad coalition, MinnCAN joined many local advocacy partners and helped amplify messages in support of the development of a rating system and investments in high-quality early learning. With each partner identifying unique areas to add value to the campaign, MinnCAN emerged as a leader in communications, securing positive social and traditional media coverage.
On August 10th, Governor Dayton announced that he was using his special powers as governor to do what the legislature failed to do:
- Expand the Parent Aware system statewide. The pilot Parent Aware rating system was expanded to the whole state so that all Minnesotan parents can have the information they need to make the best decision for their children.
- Tie state funding for pre-K to quality. The education budget passed by the legislature set aside $4 million to help low-income families send their kids to preschool. Through administrative action, the governor required that those dollars only be used towards high-quality programs.
Building upon this momentum, the governor also made a commitment to aggressively compete in the federal Race to the Top Round 3 Early Learning Challenge grant competition. MinnCAN joined in by traveling the state to document the support for building a world-class preschool system. The video was included in the formal application.
On December 9, 2011, Minnesota won a grant of more than $44 million to help expand on what it had started just four months earlier when parents in Minnesota refused to take no for an answer and pushed partisan politics to the background to do what was right for kids.