CEO Summit for Business Leaders — King of Prussia, PA

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on May 30, 2008 before the CEO Summit for Business Leaders in King of Prussia, Pa.

Thank you. It is a privilege to speak before such a powerful audience. Powerful because there is so much wherewithal here to make a difference in the lives and futures of the children – and, in fact, all the people – of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Powerful as Henry Ford once used the word: “If you think you can do a thing, or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”

My enthusiasm to be here this morning once begins with my memories of living and working here a third of a century ago. I loved newspapering in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Loved the business so much that I didn’t miss even one day of work in 35 years at seven newspapers. I didn’t want to miss a day of work because on any given day I never knew for sure what I might do, what difference I might make, whom I might meet – among them, six Presidents of these United States, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro and the Queen of England.

You have before you an idealistic, optimistic sort…and disinterested in apologizing for such. Life, it seems to me, is short, and we have only a brief time to make a difference.

My dream is that all children have a chance for a great start in life. My compass, like yours, is moral…but this morning let us turn to the practical. “For these are all our children,” wrote the author James Baldwin. “We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” Or, to use the words of the famous Dr. Karl Menninger: “What we do to children, they will do to society.”

It is the children – most especially the children of this great region – of whom I want to speak about this morning. These children and you live in a place that has been special for centuries. This wooded land, as William Penn wrote back in the 1600s, yielded “plums, grapes, peaches, strawberries and chestnuts in abundance.” To this day it yields so much more that is special, and nothing could be more special that our children – all our children. You, the people of southeastern Pennsylvania, have been front and center in the building of America, front and center in every struggle for freedom and justice and fairness in America. Indeed, your rich history embraces the story of America. Moreover, any region that can produce the likes of “Mad” Anthony Wayne, Saint Katharine Drexel, Edward Hicks, Bill Haley, Pearl Bailey, Mickey Cochrane, Louisa May Alcott, Oscar Hammerstein II, Rebecca Lukens, Leon Higginbotham and Smedley Butler is surely special.

I warn you up front: You do not have an “expert” speaking with you today. But you do have someone who, like you, cares deeply about his community…someone who, like many of you, has run a business. At The Miami Herald, for example, I was responsible for more than 2,000 employees and more than $300 million in revenues (with an operating margin just under 20 percent). I realize that you know far more than I about the almost 4 million people of these five counties and the more than 48,000 children born here each year. Moreover, I understand how difficult it is to generalize about anything in southeastern Pennsylvania. This is a place of quite extraordinary contrasts — mind-numbing poverty to mind-boggling wealth. I try to compare my own community – itself larger than 16 states – to yours. Where I live is the very cutting edge of America in diversity: 60 percent Hispanic, 22 percent black or African American (not interchangeable as they would be most places). 18 percent non-Hispanic white, and just 15 percent of the 33,000 babies born here each year. Then I look at your figures, and they show non-Hispanic whites in these five counties ranging from 39 to 89 percent, black or African Americans from 4 percent to 46 percent, and Hispanics from 3 to 11 percent. Then I turn to the percentage of foreign born. In my community, 52 percent of the people were born in another country, the highest percentage of any urban area in the United States. I look at your five counties and see percentages that range from 5 to 10 percent. So you are clearly a diverse region, but we in Greater Miami are on the very cutting edge of this country. Despite all our challenges of culture and poverty and language in Miami, we have found a way to rally around children – all children.

I do a great deal of reading, and find you have much to brag about in these five counties: You do better in college graduation rates than many places in America. Your region’s high school dropout rate is less than many other places, though certainly not acceptable. Philadelphia, it is worth noting, has an important citywide campaign focused on its dropout crisis and showing that about half the dropouts from the public school system can be identified as early as sixth grade. (The national statistics on crime prevention tell us that merely a 1 percent increase in male high school graduation would save as much as $1.43 billion a year.) Meantime, I also see increasing numbers of your children are being covered by health insurance and fewer babies being born to teenage mothers. I see superb organizations such as United Way and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children working for future adults. And having visited Pottstown a couple of years ago, I’m deeply impressed with the progress of the PEAK program, now serving 550 children in 35 community-based classrooms. This is splendid example of a community seeking to ensure that every 3 and 4 year old has the maximum opportunity for real “school readiness.” How fortunate you are in Pottstown and elsewhere to have such leadership and commitment.

But here, as Paul Harvey would say, is “the rest of the story”: The 30 percent of your children who cannot read at minimally proficient levels in third grade. The non-brain-stimulating nature of most child care, despite the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of Keystone Stars. (It’s worth noting that the Economy League of Pennsylvania released a study about a year ago showing that only 22 percent of the children in this region’s early learning centers have any real quality in those sites, adding up to places where children do not learn and grow as they should.) Or I could mention: The increases in child poverty in four of these five counties. Or the increasing number of babies born without adequate prenatal care. Or the growing number of babies born at low birth weight. There is much more to do.

Not that long ago, I knew almost truly nothing about the matters of which I speak this morning. But a dozen years ago, while I was still publisher of The Miami Herald, the then governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles, asked me to be a citizen member of the Governor’s Commission on Education – a two-year effort to look at the future of education in the then millennium to come. I am the father of five, but “school readiness” was simply not in my frame of reference. What I learned made me realize the very future of my community and my country depend on today’s topic. Indeed, I retired nine years ago to devote all my energies in this area.

The case I make today is all about growing the future workforce of this great region. How can you compete in a global economy when so many children cannot read…when we as a country lag so far behind most of the rest of the developed world in math and science? In just these five counties, 70,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working. These are tragic numbers – for these young people, for everyone.

Such statistics surely remind us how critical it is for us to invest in high-quality early childhood basics. The national research tells us that if a hundred children leave first grade without really knowing how to read, 88 of those children will still be poor readers after the fourth grade. Surely that is a wakeup call for early investment.

It is not as though the only learning years of one’s life are to be found in the earliest years – people, indeed, 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. It is not only about intellectual and physical growth, but matters, too, of social and emotional development. All children need a blend of health and education and nurturing – and all must be high quality because only real quality leads to real outcomes.

The research also tells us clearly that if ever we were to invest a dollar wisely in the years before birth to age 5, we would have a return on investment of at least seven dollars that we would not have to spend on police, prosecution and prison. These are matters of business investment as well as the self-interest of all of us. “Perhaps in the past,” wrote the education historian Diane Ravitch, “it was possible to under-educate a significant portion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation.” But no longer. “The society,” she tells us, “that allows large numbers of citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant or semiliterate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people.” Do not forget this: While 85 percent of a child’s brain development occurs by age 3, less than 5 percent of the Commonwealth’s public investment in education and child development occurs by then. An educated community is a safer, more prosperous, more optimistic community for everyone. Many business people who complain about the quality of graduates simply do not realize that the path to hiring the most capable, most qualified employees begins with a child’s earliest years. You in business know more than anyone of the power of investment, and we have ample evidence that these early years furnish the optimum window for investment. (I also must tell you that I looked at the websites for the Chambers of Commerce in these five counties, and could find literally nothing on the power of investment in the earliest years, and precious little on education generally. Now, doesn’t that tell us something?)

The wisest path to genuine public education “reform” – in the words of the Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman – “is to improve students sent to (schools).” Should we achieve that, I promise you that the first-grade teachers in this region’s 221 public elementary schools will be eternally grateful because you will have given them the ability to spend most of their time teaching and much less time managing and controlling and triaging.

Over the years since my so-called “retirement,” I have come to believe the tragedy of early childhood unpreparedness is preventable. Have come to believe that we must, community by community, build a movement for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between. A movement for everyone’s child is basic American fairness. The poor need more help, of course, but the way to help them the most is to help everyone. The American dream embraces all children because all children need all the basics. This is not “socialism.” Not the forerunner to a “nanny state.” Simply strategic wisdom and basic fairness.

So how might that be translated into the real world that you and I live in? Here are two quick examples of “building a movement”:

  • For one, good people are increasingly not putting themselves up for public service, nor encouraging and helping other good people to run for office. What a mistake. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to anyone, but I’ve read enough and heard enough about the history of Cuba to understand that too many good people decided politics was “dirty,” and therefore didn’t get involved. The result was the likes of Machado, Batista and Castro. My point here is not about the history of Cuba, but rather of the lessons of history for all of us – and my concern that the ethos of unselfish and elected public service is being diminished in our own community and our own country.
  • Number two, we lead far too separate lives. We are certainly not a “melting pot,” nor really is anywhere else in America. At our best we could be a tasty salad. I would ask, as one test, for each of us to ask ourselves: Whom did I have in my home in the past year? We talk a “good game” of diversity yet too often remain most comfortable with people like ourselves. To overcome that – and be an example to America — we must confront ourselves.

No. 1: I come from a state not well known for investment in education. But, in fact, we did pass a constitutional amendment for “universal prekindergarten” in Florida because we made the case that this was about everyone’s child. This year 134,000 Florida 4 year olds are sitting in free-to-every-family pre-K seats. That constitutional amendment (still with much to fix to make it the “high quality” education the people voted for) would never have passed had we targeted only some children, regardless of how needy. But when Floridians saw it was about fairness and the future for everyone’s family, they passed it overwhelmingly.

No. 2: Here’s a second example of the thinking-about-everyone approach: Florida has 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, it was back on the ballot. This time we made the case that this would be about everyone’s child, while certainly acknowledging and understanding the obvious: That is, certain children and families do need and should receive more help. We passed it, 2-1. This year we will spend more than $100 million, costing the owner of a median-assessed-value home just $61 a year, and administered by an independent board (called The Children’s Trust), on early intervention and prevention. For just one example, of many more, I note that just two school years ago we had only 19 nurses and 24 health clinics in our public school system. By this August, thanks to the investment by The Children’s Trust, we will have health teams in 164 schools. That means fewer absences from school, improved academic performance, a decreased dropout rate, children treated quickly, and a parent being able to stay at work (and, hence, increased productivity).

Moreover, just these past few years, we in Miami have increased the number of higher-quality child care sites from 17 to more than 300…developed the best local early childhood website in the country, plus 24-hour phone lines for parents…deliver high-quality parent skill-building information plus babies’ first book to the parents of every child born each year…distribute more than 40,000 parent skill-building newsletters each month…invest millions for special-needs children – and all that we do is in three languages.

This is noble work, to be sure, but deeply practical, too. Way back in 1931, Herbert Hoover said: “If we could have but one generation of properly born, trained, educated and healthy children, a thousand other problems of government would vanish…(assuring) ourselves of healthier minds, in more vigorous bodies, to direct the energies of our nation to yet greater heights of achievement.”

A reader of history and a student of change, I am reminded that achieving suffrage was not easy. But it was done. Nor was Social Security. But it was done. The civil rights and feminist movements were ridiculed and oppressed for years, and we still have a distance to go, but we have made real progress. Medicare wasn’t easy. But it was done. Health coverage for all will not be easy, but it will be done. The difficult achievements of the past form a solid foundation for American fairness and decency. We are all the better for that.

The case I make this morning is in the self-interest of the people of Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. Because this region is so special for so many, it might be too easy to overlook the pain and the poverty in which some of your neighbors live every day. For the general community, for the leadership of this larger community to ignore any pain within our midst ultimately imperils the whole community. All of you want a community where people feel safe, where people have a chance for a wonderful education and to enjoy a bright future. That cannot come to pass if some problems and some people are permitted to fester. This region has its best chance for its brightest future if everyone has a real chance to succeed.

It is within your power to help all children succeed. The power within each of us to make a difference in other lives is transformative when we do it together. I believe deeply in a vision that embraces the moral and practical imperatives of giving all children the best chance to become contributing adults. And I believe in what you can do and, most of all, what you will do.

Thank you, and God bless you all.