Speech from David Lawrence Jr. to the Florida Chamber Future of Florida Forum

The Future of Early Learning

The Florida Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual “Future of Florida Forum” in Orlando and invited David Lawrence Jr. to speak on the future of education. With more than 500 business and community leaders in the room, Dave emphasized the business case for investing in education, paid family leave, and other family-friendly employment benefits. Video of the speech is linked here and the text is included below. 

So here I am. 80 years old, and supposed to be making my first Ted Talk. But this moment is too important for me to show off. So I will speak as I usually do. My mission this afternoon: Share with you the details of the smartest investment we could make in the future of Florida, and what you can do to make much of that happen.

I start with the personal: Our family came here in 1956 – I was 14, the second of nine children. Florida was the “land of opportunity,” and my parents -- leaving a not too successful chicken farm in the snowbelt of upstate New York – wanted warm weather and a fresh start. We came to Florida (all 1,335 miles) jammed into just one car – a two-door, blue-and-white Ford station wagon – plus an Irish setter named Sherry. Florida then was 4 million people, or 18 percent of what we are today. (Today if our state of 22 million people were a nation, we would be the 16th largest economy in the world.) The Lawrences were public school people – all nine of us later graduating from either UF or FSU. My mother was always home for us and, believe me, she worked. Today two-thirds of women with children work outside the home. In the mid-Fifties it was a third. Today 40 percent of Florida’s children – or 1.5 million children – grow up in single-parent  households.

Once America had the world’s best public school and higher education systems. Today we are thought to be no better than No. 15 in both categories. The headline on the top of the front page of today’s New York Times, built off the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, is this: “Testing Reveals Alarming Drop in Math Skills.” Today, accelerated by the pandemic, we see, as only one example, just 23 percent of Florida’s eighth graders proficient in math.

My post-college career was as reporter, editor or publisher at seven newspapers over 35 years. Then, in 1996, Governor Chiles asked me to lead a statewide task force on “school readiness.” What I learned convinced me that the issue of investment in the early years spoke to the very future of our beloved republic. Thus, I decided to “retire” 23 years ago to spend much of my energy on helping children get ready for school and for life.

Though the father of five, I knew little about this new world I was entering. Yes, I knew about the imperative of cognitive growth, but almost nothing about the necessities of social, emotional, developmental, behavioral growth. And I didn’t know these five things either:

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

  • No. 2: That half of all children aren’t kindergarten ready.

  • No. 3: That the research tells us that if 100 children don’t really know how to read by the end of first grade, then 88 of them are in much the same boat in fourth grade. Only about half of Florida’s public school third graders can read at even minimally proficient standards. And more than half of fifth grade students can’t pass Florida’s science exam.

  • No. 4: That 75 percent of all 17 to 24 year olds in America cannot enter the American military – due to academic deficits, physical challenges, substance abuse or a criminal record. (Surely this is a threat to our country’s national security.)

  • No. 5:  That only real quality leads to genuinely good outcomes for children. This is not about providing places in child care and early learning sites, but rather about brain-stimulating teachers in environments aided by professional development and curricula that lead to real results.

These past two decades, our state has made some significant progress. I give you three examples:

  • No. 1: We passed a constitutional amendment for free pre-K for 4 year olds. This year 144,868 of our children are learning in Florida’s VPK, or voluntary pre-kindergarten.

  • No. 2: Children’s Services Councils now have been passed by voters in 11 counties, investing a total of $550 million this year for early intervention and prevention. ($170 million of that is in Miami-Dade County alone.)

  • No. 3: Early Learning Coalitions, each with significant business sector involvement, cover every one of our state’s 67 counties

I speak this afternoon to a business audience under the umbrella of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Eight years ago, with Mark Wilson’s vigorous and focused leadership, the Business Alliance for Early Learning was launched. So much more needs to be done. So what can you, the business leaders of our state, do? I give you five pathways to invest in the future of children who will become high-talent adults who will work and lead Florida to a bright and competitive future:

  • No. 1: Each of us must come to understand deeply the crucial nature of a child’s earliest years, and understand those years as a continuum. No one year makes the difference – all of them together do. A major-league quality VPK program at age 4 is important, but just as important is every other year from before birth to age 8. Invest a dollar wisely in the earliest years of a child’s life, and the research shows an ROI of perhaps seven dollars in what we won’t need to spend on remediation, police, prosecution and prison.

  • No. 2: A nurturing, knowledgeable, loving parent is crucial. Nothing is more important. Parent skill-building programs make a real difference; so do home-visiting programs that build skills at home before and after birth. Your support of and genuine understanding of the lives of the parents who work for you is critical. You will gain employees who fulfill your expectations, and then some.

  • No. 3: Moms and dads need real support from you. And real time. You can provide both. Offering paid leave and paid time off attracts and keeps top talent -- and builds the future workforce.

  • No. 4: It is not about “testing” little children. It is about measuring. Children in their earliest years do  not consistently show what they know on a “test.” Their brains simply don’t work that way. Rather, quality is measured by teacher-child interactions and the quality of the learning environment. The teacher is at the center of a quality environment, and teaching looks a lot like play. We must measure what really matters.

  • No. 5: You get what you pay for: Early learning teachers have big responsibilities -- yet are among the lowest paid educators…most making just half the starting salary of a public school teacher. Payment rates for child care need to reflect the real cost of care. Adequate teacher pay is critical.

Were all five to become a priority and reality, the result would be better for everyone – the parents who work for you, for their children, for you, for our state, and much better for our mutual future. I ran a business with $300 million in revenue, an 18 percent operating margin and more than 2,500 employees. I learned from experience that you will make more money, and have a happier and more productive workplace if you embed the following in the way you run the business: If employees feel we care about them, and if we really do, they will work harder, be more loyal, more eager to learn new skills, get along much better with their fellow employees, go home happier and raise children who, in turn, will be the high-talent, extra-skilled employees we will need for the next generation of this ever-faster-changing world. Whether you run a manufacturing plant with a tight production schedule, a family-owned restaurant, or a corporate office where employees can work from home, I promise you that you can put into place policies that will be better for you, better for everyone. The Bosses for Babies initiative of The Children’s Movement can help connect you with other business leaders all across Florida who have done just that – finding the right policies to fit their company size, their industry, their available resources.

I am not smug about anything I am telling you this afternoon. Indeed, my insecurities fuel my energies. That’s not unhealthy, as long as I have the chutzpah to go ahead and try. But if a child at age 4 or 5 already senses, “I cannot do this; everybody is way ahead of me, and I’ll never catch up,” then we have the makings of an American tragedy with children acting up and out, and teachers special-tracking those children, too often sidetracked toward mediocrity. Too many of us expect too little from others. The second President Bush once spoke of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” He was so right.

In our state we have talked for years about “public education reform,” and we should. We live in a state where 87 percent of our children go to public school. But if we want real “reform” and real results, we must invest in the earliest years. Children off to a good start in life and in school will, chances are, have momentum all their lives.

Within us (and most especially those of us here this afternoon) is the wherewithal to give all children the chance to fulfill their potential. All children need what my five children needed, and now my grandchildren: The right blend of health and education and nurturing and love. We could do this, but it cannot be done without you. You, in the words of the aforementioned George W. Bush, are “the decider.”

If we do our part, then we will have done something so significant, so powerful and, yes, so beautiful for the future of all our children and all of Florida.

God bless you, and thank you for all you will do.