Southern Regional Invitational Forum on Child Care — Atlanta

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The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, to the Southern Regional Invitational Forum on Child Care in Atlanta on Oct. 10, 2001.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to be with you this morning. As perhaps many of you know, I am somewhat of a “last-minute” substitute on this program. That, I should imagine, might give me somewhat of a “special license.” Assuming such, I will take advantage of that by dealing in some plain and straightforward talk.

I begin by realizing that a number of you know more than I about this topic, and I do so with great respect for the important contributions of the Southern Institute on Children and Families. My greatest contributions will be energy and vision built from an idealistic soul and an optimistic heart.

Sarah Shuptrine suggested I speak on this topic: “Why Should Child Care Be a Top Priority?” I find the answer to that question in so many places:

I see it in the quotation from Iowa’s top educator, who recently told a statewide forum: “The fact of the matter is that our biggest struggle educationally is not with kids who come to Iowa from other countries. It’s kids who are growing up in a lousy child-care environment.”

I see it in the recent Wall Street Journal piece that said: “The U.S. may be the most technologically and economically advanced nation in history, but its child care is Balkanized. Gaping differences state-by-state in price, quality and availability of child care often exceed the regional contrasts found in schools, universities and medical care.”

I see it in the recent formation of the Congressional Child Care Caucus, whose chairman, Bernie Sanders, had this to say: “In meeting with child care leaders throughout Vermont, I have realized the crisis is far, far worse than I had ever imagined.”

I see it in the recent Russell Sage Foundation report that tells us: “Poor-quality child care takes a toll that is real and may be as profound and lasting as that associated with neglectful or abusive parenting.”

Now let me back up for a few moments, ladies and gentlemen, and tell you how I came to be with you talking on this topic.

For several years I was in the midst of the eternal search for more and different meaning in my own life. I was in a business where I came to spend too much time on matters such as “operating margins” and profits, and not enough time to suit me on matters such as stories and journalism. On the other hand, to make matters always interesting, I also was in a business where I would be reminded every single day that readers of the newspaper represented an extraordinary variety of ways to look at things. Perspectives, if you will.

Perspective, of course, is such a powerful frame and filter for all our lives. It brings to mind a story that I like to tell involving the late Charles Kuralt, whose marvelous “On the Road” series ran for years on CBS. Mr. Kuralt once told this story on himself. CBS headlined that story: “The Remarkable Swimming Pig of San Marcos, Texas,” and it was envisioned as quite the attention-grabber. To ensure that the piece was documented quite precisely, CBS even obtained a special camera that could take underwater pictures of that little porker paddling along. After the program ran, Mr. Kuralt got a semi-blizzard of letters from farmers saying, “You idiot! Any pig can swim.” In Mr. Kuralt’s subsequent judgment, “It would have been helpful to have known that before we did the story.”

Anyhow, ladies and gentlemen, I am reminded that we all look at the world quite differently, and how we look at the world may well change as we know more and as we grow in age and wisdom. Over the years I came to need a new perspective on life.

For years I had known, of course, how important it is to build great elementary and secondary schools, how important it is to build a world-class higher education system. But I came to realize that greatness can never fully emerge from classrooms whose students didn’t get a good start in school. I came to believe that the wisest resources we could possibly spend in my state and in my community would be time and money on the front end of the lives of children from birth to age 5. I came to believe that the future of our country literally depends on children getting off to a strong start in life.

High-quality child care is a crucial part of that. Note that I said high quality for, in fact, only about 20 percent of child care could be considered as such. I live in a community of 1,424 licensed child care centers of which just 72, or 5 percent, are accredited, meaning at those places a parent can have a pretty confirmed sense of a high-quality, stimulating experience for his or her child. I live in a state where just 16 percent of all child care centers are accredited. And if you come to think that this is some exceptional example of mediocrity, know that the highest accreditation rate is in Massachusetts with only 22 percent of its child care centers accredited.

But I am getting ahead of myself. To return to my beginnings of at least some knowledge, know that the pathway to my new life began five years ago when Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles asked me to join the Governor’s Commission on Education. Somehow, at the first meeting, I was euchred into chairing one of six committees — Readiness. The mandate, I was told, was to find out how we can make sure that every child in Florida enters formal school fully prepared to learn.

Back then, this father of five had no idea of what is clearly a national movement for readiness. A movement that can be seen in North Carolina’s public-private Smart Start program. In Georgia’s universal pre-K for 4 year olds. In California’s decision to tax tobacco to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for birth-to-5 programs. In Vermont’s series of compassionate “family development” initiatives. In Cincinnati’s impressive effort to make available “home visiting” to every family. In the Defense Department’s leadership in providing high-quality child care.

Back then, I had no idea how important readiness is. Back then, the matter of brain research had never crossed my mind. But I came to know about the “explosion of learning” that occurs right after birth. I traveled, in this country and to France, Sweden and Italy’s Reggio Emilia. I discovered what most of you already know — that “readiness” is not about children learning to read by age 3. I discovered that “readiness” is about the blending of education and health and nurturing in the earliest years.

Now I have learned enough to argue that the most powerful educational “reform” that we could achieve would be getting children, prenatal to age 5, in far better shape than so many are. This morning I speak of “education” not simply within the prism of yours and my personal K-12 experience and then university studies. Let us erase any images of tiny children — 3 year olds — in tiny desks with a teacher at the blackboard. Rather I imagine our youngest children learning in a fuller, different context. I speak of the crucial nature of “teachable moments” in a child’s earliest years. Child care, quality child care, is fundamental in that.

First-grade teachers will tell you what I am telling you. They know who’s ready, and who is not, for first grade. They know the difference it makes when a child is ready — emotionally, physically, socially and intellectually. They yearn, as do I, for a major investment in the years before kindergarten. They are well aware of the longitudinal study of kindergarten, released last year by the U.S. Department of Education, showing that a quarter of “beginning kindergartners…eager to learn no more than sometimes or never, and (a third) paying attention in class (in) similar frequency.”

They also know the difference that high-quality child care makes. They know that most of their students were once in some form of child-care arrangement. (Child care, in fact, is a reality for 5 million children younger than 3 in our country, a reality for the two-thirds of this country’s working-outside-the-home parents of children birth to 5.) Good teachers can tell you what the research confirms: That is, there is ample evidence that quality child care makes a positive difference in children’s futures and real evidence that mediocre child care can stunt their futures. For instance, a joint project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, UCLA and Yale gave us these four headlines: “(1) High quality child care is an important element in achieving the national goal of having all children ready for school; (2) High quality child care continues to positively predict children’s performance well into their school careers; (3) Children who have traditionally been at risk of not doing well in school are affected more by the quality of child-care experiences than other children, and (4) The quality of child-care classroom practices is related to children’s cognitive development, while the closeness of the child-care teacher-child relationship influences children’s social development through the early school years.”

First grade teachers know so well the frequent tragedy of the student who already feels like a failure. At this very hour there are tens upon tens of thousands of those children in first grade classrooms. Many of these teachers are well aware of the American Reading Association study that told us that if a hundred children leave first grade unable really to read, then 88 of them will still be lousy readers after the fourth grade. Wonderful teachers will try, as they must, to save these children; inevitably, many will not be saved. These failures must simply be unacceptable in a country of our greatness and goodness. It is up to us to ensure the investment that will bring these children in far better shape to first grade. Child care, quality child care, is fundamental in that.

Yes, these teachers would love smaller class sizes. So would I. But the best teachers will see beyond all the public and political clatter about class size. They know that class size, while important, is not the everything that many think it is. Rather the truly crucial variable is the composition of the children in the classroom — that is, the social, intellectual, emotional and physical shape in which they arrive. (Let’s assume for a moment that you are a first grade teacher. You have 25 children in your classroom. Using our state’s average of about 30 percent of the children not really ready for first grade, then eight of those 25 children are in significant deficit. What you have here is not only a teaching problem, but a management challenge. What percentage of time do you as a teacher spend with 17 children? What percentage with those eight? Who gets shortchanged? Personally, as a teacher, I’d rather have 30 children, of whom, say, just two are in significant deficit.)

We would burn out far fewer teachers if we delivered to first grade far more children eager and ready to learn. That we do not, ladies and gentlemen, is not these children’s fault; it is our own. Child care, quality child care, is fundamental in the path we must take.

If we fail, the consequences cannot be denied: The children who become the catalysts for crime. The children who cannot get along. The young people who never really learn to read. The targets for police and prosecution and prison. The ultimate burdens for society.

We have the evidence. We know that a dollar spent wisely up front would save an estimated seven dollars on the other end — in the prisons we wouldn’t need to erect, in the prosecutors and police we wouldn’t need to employ, in the neighborhood walls we wouldn’t need to build.

If your community and my own are to be places of ultimate wisdom as well as common sense and decency, we will need to embrace the premise that all children — rich and poor, and in-between — deserve the same start in life. It is surely in your community’s advantage, and my own, for all children to get off to a good start in school and life.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not telling you that the road ahead will be easy. I also know that our most important work will not be about launching “programs”; rather it will be about building a “movement” in behalf of everyone’s child. People have known what must be done for a very long time, buttressed by significant research that underscores the imperative of high-quality early childhood basics for all children. In the spirit of illustrating that point of how long we have known what is right to do, let me tell you about two books I have just read:

The first is a book, published this year, called “Meaningful Differences” by Professors Hart and Risley of Kansas University. Their extensive research led to these conclusions: “We recognize now that by the time children are 4 years old, intervention programs come too late and can provide too little experience to make up for the past.” …”We need not take the position that the first three years are the most important time, only that the first three years are a time when children are uniquely susceptible to the culture of adults before interaction with peers and the social standards of schools become important influences on what children learn.”…”The helplessness of human infants makes them both particularly vulnerable and especially malleable.”…”The first three years may be the most important chiefly because changing what has been learned from past experience is so difficult and time-consuming. After age 3, the unique circumstances for learning are gone.”

The second book I just read was John Spargo’s “The Bitter Cry of the Children.” I give you some excerpts: “Biologically, the first years of life are supremely important. They are the foundation years…just as the stability of a building must depend largely upon the skill and care with which its foundations are laid.”…”As in all human problems, ignorance plays an important role in this great problem of children’s suffering and misery.”…and, finally, the words of a nationally known philanthropist: “If I should hire Madison Square Garden and announce that at 8 o’clock on a certain evening I would publicly strangle a child, what excitement there would be! If I walked out into the ring to carry out the threat, a thousand men would stop me and kill me — and everybody would applaud them for doing so. But every day children are actually murdered by neglect…”

This book, ladies and gentlemen, was published by MacMillan 95 years ago!

When will we heed the word? When will we have enough energy to act? When will we join forces and simply insist on a movement in behalf of every child? What more “”evidence” do we need?

  1. 1. Parent skill-building that recognizes the necessity of parents and families being fully involved in “readiness.” A child’s first teacher — the parent — needs to be the child’s best teacher.
  2. 2. A quality “medical home” for every child pre-natal to age 5 — not the emergency-room-as-basic-medical-care that thousands of children receive in our community. Every child should be entitled to first-rate health care.
  3. 3. Progress toward availability of a quality pre-K experience — though not mandatory — for every 4 year old. This would incorporate public and private approaches, including Head Start and high quality child-care options for parents.
  4. 4. “Home visiting” availability — using trained professionals or paraprofessionals — for all children from pre-natal through the first two or three years of life. Important research going back two decades shows this approach leads to more successful children, more successful adults, and greater spacing between babies — three powerful and proven outcomes.
  5. 5. High quality, nationally accredited child care available for all.

A real movement would move toward these five goals:

Let me stay on child care for a few moments more. Many of you know that most child care is pretty much “warehousing” and “storage.” Good child care is not cheap; indeed, most child care of any quality costs more than to send your child to a year in many public universities.

The economic model for child care in this country is badly awry. We call our children the most important part of our lives, then pay their caregivers wages that ought to shame us. In my state the median child-care professional makes less than $6.50 an hour — less than the median hourly wage for parking lot attendants, animal control workers and barbers. A 1998 federal survey showed that only 17 occupations (of 774 surveyed) have lower average wages than child care staffs. (Just recently I finished Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, “Nickel and Dimed,” about her life as a low-wage worker. That book told us that it takes, “on average nationwide, an hourly wage of $8.89 to afford a one-bedroom apartment.” How can we expect people paid $7 an hour, maybe even less, to afford to be able to even contemplate living the “American dream”? What we pay child-care givers — literally below the poverty level in this country — is unacceptable and shortsighted. It won’t change without public will, significant policy change and public awareness of the necessity for change. “We have learned,” wrote Newsweek columnist Anna Quindlen, “that children are teachable at a very young age. How teachable the policymakers are is now the critical issue.”

I was struck by this reference in an excerpt from a new book by Professors Suzanne Helburn and Barbara Bergmann, “America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out”: “Millions of children are not getting the quality of care that would do justice to their needs for nurture and development…. The low quality of care that many young children are receiving should also be of public concern since it affects the kind of adult population we will have in the future – how psychologically secure, how socially mature, how economically productive the future citizens of this country will be. Equally important, the care they are getting affects the quality of the life our children are leading right now — their feelings of happiness, security and self-worth.”

We have such a distance to go. The providers not only need to be fairly compensated, but they also need affordable benefits, including health, dental, disability. They need more understanding and support from the public sector. Subsidized reimbursements and incentives must be significantly greater. Training needs to be emphasized and affordable. Educated caregivers are crucial, of course. And children — all children — need health insurance. It will not be cheap to do right by children, but it is in our every interest to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen, if we had the will, the energy and the vision, what we could build — and what we must build — is an integrated, comprehensive approach, covering health and education and nurturing for all children between birth and age 5.

Built in the belief that our work is not about “other people’s” children, but about everyone’s child.

Built in the belief that we cannot afford to do anything less than provide high-quality early childhood care and education to all children who need it. Built in the belief that we cannot afford to do anything less than provide first-rate health care for all children. Built in the belief that we cannot do anything less than commit to every child and every parent that we are prepared to devote the resources, in public and private partnership, that will give every child the chance to be truly ready for school and for life.

Built in the understanding that we can never make enough progress until we build parent, caregiver and community demand for the imperative of high-quality early childhood services — such matters as child care, health care, parent skill-building and so forth. We know that parents care deeply for their children. We know that parents must be their child’s first and best teacher. We believe that if parents knew how crucial quality is and if they knew where they could get help, they would be energized. That is what our recently launched public awareness campaign in Miami-Dade is all about.

In my community, more than a year and a half ago, we asked six advertising agencies to compete for this business. A month ago we launched, with the support and attendance of the Governor, a multi-year campaign to be called Teach More/Love More. That name underscores the crucial nature of “teachable moments” in the first several years of life as well as the necessity of love and nurturing in growing successful children. This is a campaign on television, radio and print. It includes a splendid website, and accessible through It is hooked into 24-hour, seven-days-a-week phone lines staffed by trained volunteers. And everything we do is in the three languages of most preference in our community — Spanish, English and Creole.

Every penny of this $2.5 million campaign has been raised privately.

Those commercials seek to build a “demand” for high-quality early childhood basics. Meantime, on the “supply” side, we announced three significant items, all supported by private-sector dollars, too:

First, in a partnership with 36 neighborhood health clinics and 14 birthing hospitals in our community, we are giving every expectant mother, for free, a copy of the first of six videos covering the first several years of life. This represents a significant partnership with the national I Am Your Child Foundation headed by Rob Reiner and Dr. Michael Levine. Second, after birth and in a partnership with those 14 birthing hospitals in Miami-Dade County, we are giving every new parent, again for free, a high-quality baby book, published by Little Brown, and in Spanish, English and Creole. That is accompanied by a message speaking to the crucial nature of reading with your child way before the child’s first birthday. Third, once more for free, we are giving each new parent a preview copy of a locally produced, high-quality Teach More/Love More newsletter, all focused on helpful tips for parents. Parents can order this free newsletter to be mailed 11 times a year. Moreover, in a partnership with the Miami-Dade public library system and all 39 of our community’s libraries, we are giving all new parents a temporary library card and a free one-time round-trip bus pass to their closest library to get a permanent library card and access to all sorts of early childhood resources.

Everything free. Everything available in any one of the three basic languages.

I close my remarks with the memorable words of Margaret Mead. “Never doubt,” said the great anthropologist, “that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if we made early childhood development and education — most especially fully available and high-quality child care among our greatest priorities — I have great optimism that this would be achieved.

I pledge to you that I will work by your side. We could do this.

I thank you for what you do, and I thank you for what you will do.