Florida Association for the Education of Young Children — Orlando

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Here is the text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, on Dec. 8, 2017, before the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children in Orlando.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be here, especially because I so admire your leadership in early learning, most especially your commitment to quality and your insistence on a professional workforce. I agreed to speak on this topic: “How to be fair to everyone’s child: Building a movement that speaks to giving all children a chance to fulfill their potential.” Then I struggled as to how to start: Do I first stress the moral or the practical? And if I decide to do both – and I have – where, then, to start?

I begin with the moral because that is at the very core of whom each of us is. Doctor King, as you remember, talked about “all God’s children.” This morning I will talk about everyone’s child. What could be more moral than to give every child the chance to succeed? What could be more just? What could be more “American?”

In the spirit of defining what is “American,” I hearken back to the writings of the French diplomat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville. He spent a chunk of time in our country 175 years ago, leading him to observe: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” I come before you this morning more worried about our country than I ever have been. America’s greatest strength, our moral core, seems so at risk, illustrated by last year’s presidential campaign and this year’s anger and angst, venom and vitriol. Today’s incivility – aided and abetted by many in the 24-7 media who see advantage, monetary and otherwise, in trashing others — threatens the very republic that you and I love so much.

We live in an ever-changing nation. In my community of 2.8 million people – larger than 16 states – people like me, non-Hispanic white, are just 15 percent of the population. Nationally, there are already more children of color born than otherwise. In many of the lifetimes of those in this audience, what we call “minorities” will be in the majority. We, all of us – everywhere – need to find ways to have real conversations with one another, need to learn and respect our differences, need to celebrate what we have in common.

And we need to keep in mind everyone’s child.

The moral cannot really be separated from the practical, leading me to ask you, and myself, 10 quick questions:

No. 1: How can it be that the United States has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid?

No. 2: How can it be that we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners?

No. 3: How can it be that almost a quarter of Florida’s children live in the full federal definition of poverty?

No. 4: How can it be when Mother Teresa, after visiting the U.S. and noting she had never seen such an abundance of things, goes on to say she never had seen “such a poverty of the spirit, of loneliness, and of being unwanted”?

No. 5: How can it be that we in Florida spend just $2,437 for a pre-K slot for a 4 year old, just $7,296 for a K-12 classroom seat, and $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile?

No. 6: How can it be that our country is the only developed nation in the world without paid maternity leave?

No. 7: How can it be that three of every four 17 to 24 year olds cannot enter the American military – because of academic or physical challenges, or problems of criminal justice or substance abuse? Is this not a matter of our national security?

No. 8: How can it be that we are among only three — of 34 advanced nations – whose schools serving higher-income children have more funding per pupil and lower student-teacher ratios than do schools serving poor students?

No. 9: How can it be that the aggregated resources of the eight wealthiest people in the world amount to the same total wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest people on this planet (or just about half of everyone)?

No. 10: How can it be that we can figure out how to spend more than $2 trillion to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan while 283,000 perfectly legal children in our state have no health insurance?

Let me turn now to the practical, fully realizing that I am in a room where many of you know more than I. We both understand the crucial nature of the early learning years – from before birth to age 8. You have built that important work from research that showed these four things:

No. 1: 85 percent of brain growth occurs by age 3.

No. 2: Almost a third of all children in America start formal school way behind, and then most of them get further behind.

No. 3: If a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, by the end of fourth grade 88 of those children are in pretty much the same place.

No. 4: If we ever spent a dollar wisely up front in children’s lives, we’d save at least seven dollars that we wouldn’t need to spend on police, prosecution, prison and remediation.

Like you, I am delighted that so many more people are “getting it” on the topic of early education – and of the imperative of high quality. You and I both know that only real quality leads to really positive outcomes. The meaningful nature of our work is visible in so many places. For example, I just saw the new Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute research on North Carolina’s prekindergarten program, showing “learning gains for children, sometimes well into elementary school.” Then there’s that new study by the Nobel laureate James Heckman, following children from birth until age 35 and showing an especially powerful effect on males – less likely to be drug users, fewer misdemeanor arrests, much healthier. Meanwhile, there’s also the new national poll — by the First Five Years Fund – showing early childhood education atop a list of what taxpayers most wanted funded by government.

As you know so well, the early learning years to age 8, or the third grade, needs to be seen as a continuum. No one year will make all the difference. But those years together, done right, can give children momentum all their lives.

Go back a couple decades, and I knew nothing of which I am talking about this morning. In 1996 Lawton Chiles, an especially good and honorable man, asked 55 Floridians to come together on the Governor’s Commission on Education. I was then the publisher of the Miami Herald, toward the close of what would be a 35-year career in journalism. Figure out over the following two years, we were told, what education in Florida should be in the next millennium – that is, the one we now are in. I was asked to chair the task force called “School Readiness.” Though I have five children (and now grandchildren), though I believe our children were raised according to what I now understand to be the underlying principles of high-quality early learning, I had never heard of these as “principles,” never heard of the brain research, didn’t know of the windows of learning being so wide open in the first few years, never had visited a child care center – in short, had everything to learn.

What I did learn propelled me into a whole new chapter of life where I would now devote most of my waking energies on behalf of high-quality early childhood development, care and education. That, in turn, led (1) to passage of a constitutional amendment making free prekindergarten available to all 4 year olds in Florida, (2) passage in my own community of Miami-Dade of a property tax that means more than $100 million a year extra for early intervention and prevention, and (3) the building of The Children’s Movement of Florida, with tens of thousands of followers focused on making children the state’s top priority for investment. The work of The Movement has led to 24-hour phone lines in three languages with helpful information for parents, led to thousands of children who now have health insurance, and led to an agenda with much more to do.

All our work is focused on creating a “movement” – defined in this instance as about everyone’s child, about all our children. Our work is informed by the lessons of history, including the understanding that all progress in social history has been made possible by a compelling vision accompanied by some pushing and shoving. To paraphrase what President Obama said in his “farewell address”: You don’t get change just by hoping. Half a millennium ago, Machiavelli told us in “The Prince”: “There is nothing more difficult to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of the new order of things.” Make no mistake about it: You and I are engaged in a generations-long imperative to make happen “the new order of things” for children, all our children.

By way of example, I give you kindergarten, “invented” by the German Friedrich Froebel in 1837, which became a “movement” when it came to be – only in recent decades – about everyone’s child. For another example, the Civil Rights Movement, yes, was focused on minorities and African Americans, but at its most basic, at its soul, it was a movement toward equity and opportunity for all Americans. So, too, did the Feminist Movement come to be.

A few moments ago, you heard me mention the passage of The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade in which more than $100 million extra is invested every year in children in one American community. For example, millions of dollars are invested annually in higher-quality early learning. How The Children’s Trust came to be is instructive of how I believe we can make progress.

Back in 1988, the year before our family moved to Miami, a good public servant tried to pass a dedicated funding source for children. (A visionary Florida statute allows voters in a county to vote to raise their property taxes to fund early intervention and prevention programs.) That leader was Janet Reno, then the state attorney. She and others argued the moral imperative of helping children over here…and over here…and over there – that is, the most disadvantaged children and most often minorities. Very little money was raised for the campaign. It failed 2-1.

In 2002, we ran a much different campaign – a political campaign. This time we argued it as a practical imperative that would speak to the future of our whole community. We raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a real campaign. That we called it “The Children’s Trust” was itself significant because “trust” is the principal issue in my own community and no doubt yours, too. We emphasized to voters that it was about “everyone’s child,” realizing, of course, that some children and families need much more help – and ought to get that help. To give us a better chance of passage, we put a five-year “sunset” on it, saying in effect: “Try it for a few years, and then you will get another chance to vote on it.” That first time, it passed 2-1, reversing the previous percentage, and went into effect in 2003.

It came up again in late August 2008. You remember the economic and political climate then. Plummeting property values. Busted banks. A pugilistic Presidential campaign. This time we raised $1.7 million in non-tax-deductible contributions and spent it on a grassroots campaign plus a media campaign focused on “We kept your trust.” The Children’s Trust prevailed with 85.4 percent of the vote. The lesson here is not about whether people love children – children were loved in 1988 and no less loved 20 years later.

The real lesson here has everything to do with defining a “movement’ as about everybody. A real “movement” can never be based on “those” children — whomever they may be – but always must be about “our children.” Neither Florida’s pre-K-for-all constitutional amendment (in which 169,000 4 year olds are enrolled this year) nor The Children’s Trust would have passed if either had been about anything less than “all our children.”

The very future of our country depends on our succeeding on behalf of everyone’s child. We will not fully do so in my lifetime, and probably not yours either. (I already have a splendid successor in place.) But while you and I are on this mortal coil, we can work for an America where every child has the fullest possible chance to succeed. What a blessing it can be to help make that possible.

Mine is a family where all eight of my siblings and I are full products of public school and public universities. The latter furnished the only realistic opportunity we had for a quality higher education. Public school remains the real world for 90 percent of the 4+ million American children born each year, as it was for all in the Lawrence family. The wisest course we could possibly take for public education “reform” would be to deliver the children to kindergarten in far better shape than millions are today. It is a mission both daunting and vital.

Before I depart this morning, you deserve to hear some specifics that are vital in building a significant “school readiness” movement originating in my own community, but now radiating from so many Florida communities. I give you just six principles that would work where you live, too:

No. 1: This work must be done community by community, as well as statewide. No one cares as much about the children of your community as you do, or about Miami as I and others do. The great power in America is local.

No. 2: We have built a significant board that includes big league benefactors and big league business people, high-powered public servants, the state’s best communications firm leader, a major figure from the faith community. Our board is diverse — geographically and otherwise. We must have the capacity to reach powerful people at every level where decisions are influenced and made.

No. 3: Real polling precedes all our work. Each of our initiatives must be significant and measurable. A great vision must be followed by regular and real progress.

No. 4: We must raise a whole bunch of money, and have, in fact, raised millions in private dollars. (Nothing we raise is from public dollars.)

No. 5: There is great power in convening, in bringing people together. That requires respected and known-widely leadership, the sort of leadership that seeks everyone possible to be within the “big tent” of progress. There are those sorts of private-sector leaders in every community. You just have to find her, or him.

No. 6: Real leadership must involve the private sector, most especially the business community. Half of this country’s high school students lack the written, spoken, thinking and problem-solving skills that employers seek. Business people frequently gripe about the quality of graduates, little knowing that the answer cannot be found in fixing fourth grade, seventh grade or somewhere in high school. Instead, the “fix” can be found where the most extraordinary return on investment occurs – that is, in the earliest childhood years. Get those years right, and a child – chances are – will have momentum all his or her life. The conservative American Enterprise Institute released a report this summer on the already-with-us “large and growing shortage of skilled workers,” adding: “For American business, advancing high-quality child care is a winning proposition. It’s a wise investment in America’s future – strengthening business today while building the workforce we’ll depend on tomorrow and for decades to come.”

It took years for us to induce the powerful Florida Chamber of Commerce to be involved. Today we have a statewide Early Learning Business Alliance. Vance Aloupis, The Movement’s CEO, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Another business example comes from the most significant Florida Council of 100, business and civic leaders advising the state’s most powerful, and beginning with the governor, on what would be the wisest public policy and the wisest use of public dollars – that is, your tax dollars. First, some background: Back in 2002, Florida voters passed – very narrowly – a constitutional amendment on class sizes for public schools. The way it was worded was not our state’s wisest moment. The national research furnishes no evidence that class size is a significant denominator beyond third grade. In fact, the most important dynamic is the nature of the kids in the classroom – that is, how ready are they to learn – cognitively, socially, emotionally, behaviorally, developmentally? So we are literally spending $3 billion a year because of this amendment, and at least two-thirds of that could be spent more wisely.

The Council of 100, after months of exploration and deliberation, recommended that those $2 billion would be “better spent on attracting and retaining top-notch teachers and improving early learning.” That would include a significantly improved, higher-quality VPK program for 4 year olds and a high-quality program for 3 year olds…plus significant extra dollars to help those children most at risk, including language learners and those with special needs. I would hope that the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children would push hard to get this sort of thinking – and investment – to come to pass.

Some years ago that gentle philosopher Fred Rogers reminded us: “Our goal as a nation must be to make sure that no child is denied the chance to grow in knowledge and character from the very first years.” In Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he added, “every child is welcome into the world of learning – not just a few, not just ones from certain neighborhoods but every child.”

Lillian Katz, one of this country’s great prophets of early learning, told us: “We must recognize that the welfare of our children is intimately linked to the welfare of all other people’s children. After all, when one of our children needs life-saving surgery, someone else’s child will perform it. If one of our children is harmed by violence, someone else’s child will be responsible…. The good life for our own children,” she says, “can be secured only if a good life is secured for all other people’s children.”

The joy of life is making a difference in other lives. At age 75 I am blessed to be as idealistic and optimistic as I was six decades ago. I keep in mind the sagacity of Horace Mann, the semi-“inventor” of American public education, who told the graduating class of Antioch College in 1859: “Be ashamed to die before you have won some battle for humanity.”

“Retirement” seems to me an unhealthy option. It is not within my nature to be “laid back,” though I could surely be some less intense. I remain eager to participate in the adventures that the tomorrows can bring. I have lived a life where I have learned in 56 countries, read thousands of books, drove a tractor by the time I was 10, sold vegetables and delivered newspapers, interviewed child rape victims in the eastern Congo, dined with Queen Elizabeth, interviewed the President of the United States on Air Force One and the dictator of Cuba in Havana, and enjoyed a marriage of 54 years, loving Roberta today even more than the day we were married…and helping her raise five really good people, our children (though she did way more than I).

My lifelong hunger is to learn and to give. Meanwhile, I have plenty more books to read…and, I hope, a chapter or two more of life to lead.

Life moves so swiftly, and can go so suddenly. Yours and my lifelong test is how to spend the limited time we have. It will be time to rest when we enter the next world. None of us will “save” this world, but we can surely “save” many children. Then those we help, upon succeeding themselves, have the opportunity to contribute to better lives in the generations to come. The author Edith Wharton wrote this: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.”

It is a privilege to lead a purposeful life. Every child deserves that opportunity. Investing in the earliest years would dramatically increase the likelihood that children would lead lives that are good and giving.

Goodness is the goal for all of us. In the words of the 18th century theologian John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. To all the people you can. As long as you ever can.”

That is the opportunity and obligation before each of us. In the midst of the Holocaust, Anne Frank wrote these words in her diary: “How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

May God bless your great work and each of you – and all our children. Always.

Thank you.