Family Child Care Home Association — Clearwater Beach

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, “Family Child Care Home Association” in Clearwater Beach on Jun. 29, 2002.

It is a privilege to be here this morning, and I thank you for the opportunity.

You are so frequently the forgotten people, the stepchildren of the early childhood movement. That is a shame, and we ought to do something about that. For all the discussion about child care in our community and in our country, there is way too little public understanding about the extraordinary role that family child care – “home care” — plays in the lives of so many children.

There are, to be sure, great positives in family child care, most especially for infants and toddlers. The home-like atmosphere. The smaller settings. The more personalized care. The flexibility. The continuity of care. The consistency of care. The empowering nature of owning and operating your own business, especially one that cares for and educates children. But I also know, as do you, some of the downside: The significant swings in quality – those caregivers who provide a highly stimulating atmosphere vis-a-vis those who use the television as “babysitter” (which can never be good for children of any age). The financial difficulties of balancing the right sort of environment with the practical realities of earning a living. The isolation of the profession: Because there is so often just one adult in the home, the days can be especially emotionally and physically draining. Moreover, there is obviously less of an opportunity to talk and confer – even commiserate — with other caregivers.

There is, of course, no “typical” family child-care provider. They range from the quite extraordinary to the less than acceptable. I have spent time with some of the best (including Maria Luaces who is with us this morning), reminding me that there are so many good ones. But you and I also know that a great many children spend many hours in the care of providers who care and know nowhere near as much.

I see in so many family child care homes a commitment to children, a respect for their differences, and an atmosphere of love and fairness and diplomacy and patience (all so necessary to children). And I know these are qualities shared by so many others in this room this morning. It reminds me once more of the difference any one of us can make in the lives of others.

It simply must be our mutual mission that all children get high quality child care…that we are concerned not only about cost and convenience and safety, but also the imperative of a stimulating, educational environment.

That means we must move on so many fronts. That means more emphasis on training, much better compensation and, most of all, greater parental and public awareness. I would like to work with you toward that.

We have such a distance to go. We live in a state – like the rest of them – that pays child-care professionals less than animal control workers and parking lot attendants. That is simply sinful. Meanwhile, the providers need affordable benefits, including health, dental, disability. They need far more understanding and support from government. (I am often reminded, painfully so, how little power children’s advocaters have. Think of what could be achieved if the people who know the most, the people who care, beginning with you, insisted on progress.

Meantime, who could deny that subsidized reimbursements and incentives must be significantly greater? Or that training needs to be emphasized and affordable? Educated caregivers are crucial, of course. And children – all children – need health insurance. I’ve just started on the list of necessities. You know better than I how many the needs are. Yes, it will not be cheap to do right by children, but it is in our every interest to do so.

In the words of a Ms. Foundation-financed study: “Rather than accepting the notion that there is a scarcity of money to fix the child-care dilemma, we must re-prioritize how public dollars are spent by asking what is truly important to the well-being of a democratic society. What does our society value most?” Then we must match our public emphasis with far more awareness and dollars from the private sector.

Eventually, I hope that all of you will move toward accreditation and the cache that carries. I know it’s not easy, and I also know full well that you will need the help of myself and many others to take these next steps.

Please know that I admire your leadership and your commitment to high-quality child care. You have led significant progress in our state in high-quality child care. Our state leads the nation in the number of nationally accredited homes. Our state has the most family child care providers with a CDA. I give you and your Florida Family Child Care Home Association the first credit for that. Thank you in behalf of the children of Florida. But I know that you do not think, nor do I, that we are anywhere near close to where we want to be.

Because you care so much about children, I hope you will join in full support this November for the constitutional amendment that would provide high-quality, non-mandatory pre-K experiences for every 4 year old in Florida. This would be done in both public and private ways, and it is in competition with no one. Georgia already does this, and the evidence is in: Children are significantly better prepared for school.

Let me in that spirit, then, speak with you this morning about the even larger picture of the early years in a child’s life and the kind of commitment all of us must make. As important as child care is, we cannot achieve genuine “school readiness” only on one front. Nothing less is necessary than an integrated, comprehensive plan – covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5 – is our best hope for lasting progress in behalf of the children of our state. Achieving such a plan will be difficult for you and I both know that we deal with a hodgepodge of programs in a deeply fragmented almost non-system. Good programs are led and staffed and funded by good people, but they are quite disconnected from other good people and good programs. We see quite the same on the federal and state levels – the hundreds of millions of dollars and the thousands of good programs and good people, all most often disconnected from one another.

We will never make real progress until we all get on the same page in behalf of serving the whole child. No one program will ever do enough; we simply must have a real “system.” We do not have a real system in our state, and indeed anywhere in these United States.

There is, as some of you know, a national movement for readiness. You can see it in North Carolina’s public-private Smart Start program, Georgia’s universal pre-K for 4 year olds, and California’s decision to tax tobacco to raise $700 million a year for birth-to-5 programs. And you can see that in Florida’s legislative wisdom to provide School Readiness Coalitions county-by-county. (I want to say as an important aside that I believe that family child-care-home providers can be so much more significant than most of you are in our state’s 53 School Readiness Coalitions. Please…please get involved. You are so crucial to the future, and unless you are at the Coalition table, too many other people will not know how crucial you are.)

This topic of school readiness is, for sure, quite crucial. We know from the research that if we were ever to spend a dollar wisely up front — that is, from pre-natal to age 5 — we would not have to spend, more than seven dollars at the other end. Those are the dollars that society spends on police and prosecution and prison, and remedial education of all sorts. How wasteful and tragic it is that thousands of first-grade children already see themselves as “failures.” We could prevent that. And we should – for their sakes and our own.

Research also tells that if a hundred children come out of the first grade not really being able to read, then 88 of them will really not know how to read after the fourth grade either. Surely that is a wakeup call for readiness for all children.

Success at the early end of education will drive great progress at the other end. I remind you that the national average for those 25 years and older who have completed four years of college is 26 percent, several percentage points higher than the average in the State of Florida (with Miami-Dade not even reaching 19 percent).

An integrated, comprehensive approach — covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5 — is our best hope for lasting progress, our best hope for a strong future for your state and my own. We simply must do much better than what we have now — good programs led by good people, but invariably disconnected from other good people, other good programs.

Our mission must embrace what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of — that is, “all of God’s children.” That is surely not the way the present so-called “system” works. Instead, in your community and my own, well-intended, good-hearted people target one deeply disadvantaged neighborhood or another, and then devote extra resources (which, because those resources are disbursed in such a non-holistic way, so often add up to precious little progress for children). Meantime, the rest of the community sees how we target our resources, and reasons: “Oh, I see, it is about those children.” But “readiness” is not and should not be, just about those children; rather, “readiness” should be about, and for, everyone’s child. “Every child must have a place at the starting line,” said the President of the United States a few months ago. “To close the achievement gap in our schools,” said George W. Bush, “we must close the early childhood gap in our society.”

Such thinking amounts to neither unachievable dreams nor socialistic inclinations. If your family, or my own, can afford basic and quality services, then we should pay for those. But if a family cannot, it is in the community’s interest, our interest, to provide those basic and quality services.

All children need all the quality early care and education that your children and my own need: Love and nurturing. All their shots. Excellent nutrition. The fullest opportunity to be safe. Stimulating pre-K. Child care that engages the mind, not the “warehousing” that most children receive. (How could it possibly be that less than 15 percent of the licensed child-care centers in our state are nationally accredited, meaning at those you can have assurances of a stimulating environment for your child or grandchild?)

How can we afford to do anything less than provide high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it? How can we live with ourselves when tens of thousands of our children enter first grade so significantly behind, and so frequently unable to catch up? How can we afford to do anything less than provide first-rate health care for all children? How can we live with ourselves when tens of thousands of children between birth and age 5 in our respective states go to the emergency room for basic medical care because they have no health insurance and no family pediatrician?

Do we appeal to Floridians on the grounds of human decency? In God’s world, surely every child is entitled to a decent beginning in life. Or do we argue this in practical terms? In the words of the great progressive philosopher and educator John Dewey: “What the wisest and best parents want for (their) own children, (so) must the community want for all its children.” In the words of the author James Baldwin: “For these are all our children…. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Readiness is, of course, also a matter of business investment and the self-interest of all of us. An educated community is a safer, more prosperous, more optimistic community for everyone. The fact of the matter is that we will either pay a few dollars more up front in children’s lives, or we will pay many more dollars when they get older. A more educated, contributing citizenry literally depends on children coming to first grade eager and able to learn. The greatest gift we could give our schools is more children ready for success in the first grade and, hence, in life. Assuming that we in Florida were serious about “readiness” for all children, I offer five pieces of advice:

One: We must involve both public and private resources. We must think of government’s role in the spirit of Hubert Humphrey’s wisdom: “The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life — the children; the twilight of life — the elderly; and the shadows of life — the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” We must involve, deeply so, the private sector. Some of the most visible leaders must come from the general community, including the business community. The top leaders need to be seen as in no one’s “camp,” people open and responsive to all, people with a vision that encompasses all children, people who truly understand what “holistic” means, people both open and tough-minded, people with a long-term commitment and passion for this issue. Most of all, we will need to involve parents. If they ever knew what their children are entitled to in a civilized society, you would have a mighty army insisting on real change and a holistic approach.

Two: The public is starved for information. Most people, even well educated and sophisticated people, know precious little about this whole area of readiness. But I have yet to meet the parent who at least at birth does not want the best for his or her child (though that parent might find himself or herself quickly and quite incapable of providing those necessities). Parents are starved for first-rate information. We need to find wise ways to provide that information, which is why last September in our community we launched a major, years-long campaign for public awareness on this topic in English, Spanish or Creole.

Three: We cannot let money dominate the discussion. I can’t tell you the number of people, good people, who have said to me: “I’m really with you on this one. Now if you could give my program a bit more money, I promise you that things will be better.” I simply don’t believe that. More money may be needed, but the discussion first needs to focus on what children need. Holistically. The point is not to start another program. Rather it is to focus on outcomes for children. Measurable results. Results regularly shared with the community. We will not have to wait a generation to know the results; any first-rate first grade teacher will tell you quickly how prepared the children are.

Four: Our real focus must be local. The state as a partner will be crucial. So will its dollars. But if real progress is to be made, the first focus must be by and on the local community insisting on real progress for its children. In our community (where 31,000 children are born every year), we have built partnerships with 14 birthing hospitals, 5 birthing centers, 38 neighborhood clinics, and 39 community libraries. I’d be delighted to send you the specifics o this; it is a most exciting program to greet every new parent with helpful, caring information.

Five: We will have no real “movement” unless this is about everyone’s child. When you think of the lessons of history, when you think of “movements,” what comes quickly to mind? Maybe the Civil Rights Movement. Or the Feminist Movement. Both of those movements, in their earliest moments, were marginalized by others. Frequently ridiculed. And oppressed every chance some people got. Eventually, when most people came to understand that these were movements that spoke to every person and an American sense of “fairness,” they came to be part of the accepted foundation of this country. It is not coincidental that half the seats, or more, in most law and medical school classrooms in this country are occupied by women. This progress is a direct consequence of the struggle for women’s rights and the Feminist Movement. That movement is, in fact, about standing up for everyone’s rights in our country. Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement was not just about African Americans, but about everyone and the essence of American “fairness.”

Let me use kindergarten as an example of a “movement”:

I frequently ask audiences to guess when kindergarten began, and usually I hear back that it was 40 or 50 years ago. In fact, kindergarten was “invented” in 1837, and came in this country a century and a half ago. Taking more than a century to be genuinely widespread, kindergarten was frequently fought as unnecessary and, even, “anti-family.” For decades, kindergarten was seen as mostly for society’s worst off and society’s best off. Only when it became a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child did it become a full reality. Today, a high-quality kindergarten experience for all children has become an expectation on the part of every parent of every 5 year old. Kindergarten is still not “mandatory” in our state, but is there a parent of a 5-year-old today who wants anything less than a high-quality kindergarten-like experience for that child?

We can never build a real movement for “school readiness” unless we do so for everyone’s child — poor, rich and in-between. For those of you who think the challenge too daunting, I give you the words of the great anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt,” she once wrote, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Ladies and gentlemen, it is up to us. Time is fleeting for the 195,000 children born each year in Florida. Ours is an obligation to awaken a movement in behalf of every child.

Let us — for both moral and practical reasons that speak to the future of the sort of places we all want to live in — seize that opportunity. Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, every family included and embraced in the cause. Imagine, ladies and gentlemen, every child healthy, eager and ready for success in life and in school. It could be done. You could do it. We could do it.

In behalf of the children, I thank you. God bless you.