Governor’s Commission on Education — Orlando

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., then publisher of The Miami Herald, when he chaired the Readiness Committee of the Governor’s Commission on Education. The speech was in Orlando on Feb. 12, 1998.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have traveled a year and a half to be with you today. I, the newly converted, come before the already long-converted. But while I am a newcomer to this mission of early childhood education, you now have me so deeply convinced in this cause that my commitment approaches the evangelical.

None of us can rest while a third of the children in our state enter school unprepared to learn. How sad for these children. How sad for all of us.

I come before you knowing that no more child- and family-loving audience could be gathered anywhere. Nor could any state have a leader more committed to this topic than our own. The Governor’s commitment to children and early childhood education deserves to be his greatest legacy. What greater gift could any of us give to the future of Florida?

Surely, we must continue to build a world-class higher education system. Surely, we must continue to build great secondary and elementary schools. But even more surely we must realize that full greatness will never emerge from classrooms whose students didn’t get a good start in school. I can say it no more clearly than this: The wisest resources we could possibly spend in our state would be time and money on the front end of the lives of the one million Floridians from birth to age 5.

I share your vision: Do no less than provide high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it. Do no less than provide comprehensive health services to all children who need them. Do no less than commit to every child and every parent that our state is prepared to spend the resources, in public and private partnership, that will give every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life.

My journey to this place began 18 months ago when Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, a man I much admire, asked me to join the Governor’s Commission on Education. I didn’t have the time. I already had a fulltime job, in two newspapers and two languages, and no shortage of other ways to give in my own community and to my state. My only real expertise, such as it is, was as a father of five. But I was raised to believe that you do not deny the call to public service. So, reluctantly, I said, “Yes.” Then, somehow, before the day was finished on my first commission meeting, I found myself chairing one of the six committees — Readiness. The mandate, I was told, was to find out how we can make sure that every child in Florida enters kindergarten and first grade fully prepared to learn.

Back then, I had no idea how important this is.

Back then, the matter of brain research had never crossed my mind. Now I can tell you, in some detail, about the “explosion of learning” that occurs right after birth. Now I can tell you about the trillions of connections between neurons, a number that diminishes in direct relationship to the connections that are never used. Now I can tell you why I probably will never speak Spanish perfectly, no matter how hard I continue to try, but how different it might have been had I the abundance of cerebral synapses that were mine a half-century ago.

Back then, I didn’t know how far the French have advanced because they have done exactly what we are still talking about, or in the words of the Core Knowledge Foundation: “Children who enter preschool when they are younger consistently perform better on achievement tests in French and math, and this advantage seems to increase as the children move through the elementary grades.”

Back then, I didn’t know that 160,000 of Florida’s children are reported abused or neglected each year. Back then, I didn’t know that almost 900,000 of Florida’s children are hungry or at risk of hunger. Back then, I didn’t know that 150,000 of Florida’s children will be arrested this year (though I always knew that more prisons could never be a good enough solution). The real solution, I now know, is early childhood education.

Back then, I wouldn’t have known that almost 25 million Americans cannot read and write well enough to compete for jobs, or that Florida is No. 47 in the Kids Count data in a state where 15 years from now we will have 42% more middle teens, the most vulnerable age for crime increases.

Back then, I couldn’t have told you how much of a difference really good child care makes.

Now I will never forget the master teacher in a Hillsborough school in a Pre-Kindergarten, Early Intervention program for 3- and 4-year-olds. No visitor to that classroom could conclude anything other than that these children — indeed, all of us — will be better off for their education. “Who needs this kind of education in our state?” I asked that teacher. And she told me what I have come to believe, fervently: “Everybody needs it.”

Everybody ladies and gentlemen. Everybody. Our mission does not focus only on society’s impoverished and poor. Our mission must embrace everyone. Every child in our state benefits from a genuine attention to ensuring that every child is ready to learn. Indeed, all Floridians of any age benefit.

In this time-impoverished world, we are all running too fast, and so many of us do not, or cannot, slow down enough to give our children the sort of start in life they need. It is time for all of us, and all the people of Florida, to slow down enough to do what is simply decent — that is, to insist that no child be left behind in our state.

I come before you now better educated on this subject, but eager to learn even more. Eager to work with you on what is as close to God’s work as most of us will ever see on this earth.

Many of you already know what the Readiness Committee has proposed, and the Governor’s Commission on Education passed — without a single dissent. We call our initiative Children First — a specific set of recommendations to advance the well-being of children under age 5. We proposed real attention at the highest levels of state, beginning with a Children First Governing Board, which would include the governor, the commissioner of education, legislative leaders and top leaders in the private sector. We also proposed a Children First Coordinating Council — agency heads who would meet as often as monthly to carry out the policies in a coordinated, holistic way, and not the way we frequently do things now. And — knowing that this will only work in public and private partnership — we proposed legislation that would provide incentive dollars for each of Florida’s 67 counties to do strategic planning leading toward full Children First partnerships in each county involving nonprofits, the school system, houses of worship, parents, indeed all the caring sectors of the community.

Our vision insists that every program for our youngest children be considered a readiness program. We must depart the path we are taking now — high quality services for a relative few, lesser quality for all the rest.

Ladies and gentlemen, that brain research underscores what an opportunity we have right now to make this profoundly powerful case. You and I, and many others, simply must convince the people of Florida, and our elected representatives, that:

A child who is sick… A child who is hungry… A child who has known no love… And a child who has not been nurtured…

will likely not succeed in school or in life, likely will not grow up to be a productive, contributing member of society. We know this. Yet what will we do?

What will we do to ensure that our children — Florida’s most precious natural resources — are not sickly, abused, unnurtured and unprepared to succeed in school and in life?

What will we do — as individuals, parents, employees, employers, and members of a community — to ensure that all children have an early childhood that prepares them for life?

What we can do depends significantly on what we can help to happen these next three months while the Florida Legislature is in session.

Remember how that brain research underscores the “window of opportunity” for shaping a lifetime? Know that this year’s “window of opportunity” is our opportunity to impact Florida public policy in behalf of all children being ready to learn. Should we skimp on either the wisdom or the energy to seize this opportunity, shame on us, and so sad for our state. The timing is so right.

Right because of the increasing public awareness of the brain research and what that means to the success in life of every child.

Right because we have a governor for whom these issues are his highest priority.

Right because we have a legislature whose awareness of the importance of these issues is growing, and a Senate president who has spoken out forcefully on the importance of these early years.

Right because business leadership is increasingly involved in these issues — ranging from the Readiness Committee to the Child Care Executive Partnership Board to the Constitution Revision Commission. Business knows the advantage of a smart workforce and the wisdom of investing early to reap dividends later.

Right because we have the funding wherewithal — more “new” money than we have had in years.

But, be on alert. The fight over where any “windfall” will be spent already is underway in Tallahassee.

The governor’s proposed budget, already submitted to the legislature, would use most new money where it would have the most impact — on our schools, our economy, our quality of life. It is a budget that invests heavily in early childhood and family initiatives. Initiatives include increased funds in behalf of children’s health, to prevent child abuse, to make sure that there is no waiting list for those eligible for subsized child care, and for higher quality child care via Gold Seal incentives.

All these programs push progress toward the day when every child in Florida is cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically prepared to enter school and life.

Your active and continued contact with legislators from your districts on these issues is crucial. Tell them you know of Children First and the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission on Education. Tell them that you support that vision and specific agenda for high-quality early childhood services to all of Florida’s youngest children. If you do not tell them — and unless there is a great public push — any splendid plan on paper will mean, ultimately, nothing.

Yes, the price of progress will be extra dollars. But we also must make sure our elected representatives know that we do not propose social programs without accountability. Real dollars must be matched with the real responsibility for real outcomes.

That means that we must be willing to explore ways to collaborate and to integrate our programs and the dollars. Turf must not be guarded at the expense of doing right in behalf of all programs for children ages 0-5.

I live a life of optimism, yet I can not know whether we will succeed. But shame on us if we do not try.

What I do know for sure is that the child who feels good about himself or herself, the child who does well in school is the child who will not commit crime, the child who will not be a costly challenge to society.

It is only moral and fair and right that every child be entitled to have the chance to succeed. It is also the single wisest expense we could assume to ensure a bright future for all of Florida.

Finally, I want you to know how much I and so many Floridians appreciate how much difference you already make. But I also remind you what you know already — that is, your work and mine is nowhere near done. This great mission will require us not only to convince others, but to commit even more of ourselves. What we must achieve for everyone is a state where no one’s child is left behind.

We could share in no greater cause.

Thank you.