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Children's Summit -- Orlando

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Oct. 6, 2006 before the Children's Summit in Orlando, Fla.

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is a privilege to be with you. Let me begin by telling you what you do not need from me today. You do not need a lecture. Or a homily. You most certainly do not need any hectoring. You may not even need inspiration because you already are inspired by your spirit of caring for children. And many of you have, in fact, inspired me.

What, then, to share with you? Perhaps wisdom; and, if so, wisdom built on the experiences and scar tissue of my own life and work.

I do not need to make the case with you that the very future of Florida depends on how well we do by the 220,000 children born this year. I do not need to argue the moral imperative for our work because we have gathered here today good people who believe in decency and social justice for all. I do not need to argue the practical imperatives for our work because you see the evidence all around you – just one example being the 66,000 fourth graders in our state this year who could not reach even the standard of minimally proficient reading. I do not need to argue the power of investment because you know, better than most, that if we invested even a dollar in the early childhood years, it would be returned seven-fold or more in the prisons we wouldn’t need to build, the police and prosecutors we wouldn’t need to hire, and the remediation we must do to lift tens of thousands of Florida’s children to a point where they can succeed.

(And speaking of remediation, I want to mention some Florida math: You and I live in a state that spends almost $2 billion a year on the back-end costs of re-teaching. Florida now spends $654 million for supplemental academic instruction for scholastic interventions and tutoring, plus $1.2 billion spent on instruction for the more than 200,000 students who must repeat a grade each year.)

The message here? We will either invest a relatively few dollars more up front, or we will all pay a much greater price later on.

I live a fully optimistic life, without the slightest regrets for an idealistic, even sometimes pragmatically naïve soul. “We were born,” said Nelson Mandela, “to make manifest the glory of God within us.” My 35 years in journalism tell me that the best stories in human history are of individuals who made a great difference in the lives of other people. There is great power to do good within each of us.

So what do I tell you? Perhaps just four things:

No. 1: Let us build from what we do have. Keep pushing for perfection, but be respectful of each step taken, and build from those steps. I use the example of Florida’s prekindergarten program to make the point. First, I give you good news worth saluting, but giving none of us permission to rest: That is, we now have, and will forever have, a constitutional amendment in our state that says that every parent of every 4 year old must be offered a “high-quality prekindergarten experience delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” A fair person would acknowledge some good standards in Florida’s approach -- including no more than 18 children in a class; that same person would insist that much more needs to be done, knowing that real quality and enduring outcomes for children won’t happen in our state without three things: (a) far more credentialed teachers (and ultimately a teacher credentialed in early childhood education in every class), (2) real requirements for research-based curricula, and (3) significantly more dollars invested by the state.

Having said that, you and I both know that it is “popular” among some in the “intelligentsia” to moan over the failings of Florida in pre-K (and in many other areas, too)…to tell us that nothing is right, that we live in a state characterized invariably by moral inadequacies. That is unfair. And wrong. Wrong on the facts. Wrong as an approach to progress. Count me as personally delighted that we have the opportunity to build from something now embedded by the people of this state in the Constitution. The fact the parents of 106,000 4 year olds in our state chose this program in its first year testifies to the fact that they do see value in what has been done thus far, without diminishing the necessity for us to do much more. Progress is almost always evolutionary. And we need to remember that in our work today, and beyond.

The lesson here for all of us is this: Be willing to acknowledge the progress that has been made and respect those in the Legislature – in both parties -- who push for quality, and continue to work for higher standards for all programs – prenatal through juvenile justice and youth transitioning to adulthood. I have yet to meet the legislator who doesn’t care about children. My mother always told me, “You get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I still think she is right.

No. 2: Be willing to dream. The best doers I know are dreamers. A quarter-century ago, Robert Greenleaf told us in “The Servant and Leader”: “Not much happens without a dream. And for something great to happen, there must be a great dream. Behind every great achievement is a dreamer of great dreams. Much more than a dreamer is required to bring it to reality, but the dream must be there first.” Today begins with dreaming about what should be, what can be – and how to get there.

No. 3: Let us not deceive ourselves. Just because we see ourselves as being on the side of the angels, others may not be quite so sure of us. To illustrate, I give you a Miami example: Back in the late Eighties good people in Miami worked hard to take advantage of a Florida law letting the people of any county form a dedicated funding source for children. They argued that children over there…and over there…and over there really needed the most help (which was true), and so we ought to help those children. And it failed, 2-1. Four years ago, we argued that it was about everyone’s child (realizing, of course, that certain children are more at risk and surely need more help). That we passed, 2-1.

Which brings me to Point No. 4: We will never make enough progress by working from the prism of “those” children -- whomever they may be, however much help they might need. Government tends to work from rubrics of federal poverty levels – 133 percent, or 150 percent, or 185 percent and so on. But such categorizing does not represent the everyday signposts of people’s lives. Indeed, such thinking divides us. Are we not a good enough country, a good enough people, to think about all children. This is not the recipe for a “nanny state.” This is not “socialism” or “radicalism.” This is simply American decency. Unless you and I share a vision about all children – and build from that vision -- then we will gnaw on the margins of progress.

The lessons of history are laced through with struggle. Pain always accompanies progress. It is how America achieved democracy itself. And suffrage. And moved toward racial and gender equality. And “invented” public schools. And arrived at Social Security, and Medicare. All had enemies. Ultimately, most Americans came to accept these as fundamental for everyone. Are we not a good enough people to make sure every child has the quality basics? Should not every child, for just one example, have health insurance? How could we live in this rich and generous country, and 9.5 million children be without health insurance (and 600,000 of those in Florida)? None of us should think that anything we do today will translate to instant progress. We are instead on a highway whose destiny is humankind’s necessity to commit to all children.

We need to be practical people. We need to be people who understand that in Florida and America we don’t really have a “system” embracing children, but rather a hodgepodge of services that reach many children, seldom in a genuinely holistic way. We need to remember these words from Hubert Humphrey: “The moral test of a government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life…the twilight of life…the shadows of life.” But you and I cannot simply turn to government to “solve” our problems. It is us, including many of us in the private sector, who must bear much of the leadership and provide many of the resources. We must work – and respectfully so – with those in elected power, but our leadership and our hard work should transcend any administration – Republican or Democratic. We need to be politically tough, but partisan only on behalf of children.

You and I need to find better ways to work with one another. Let us stop fretting so much about our own organizations and our own funding streams. Let us spend more time thinking about the real purpose of our own lives, and how we can help children – all our children -- succeed. Let us realize the opportunity that is in this room today, and what we must do – together – in the days and years ahead.

  • For one, good people are increasingly not putting themselves up for public service, nor encouraging and helping other good people to run for office. What a mistake. I certainly don’t want to be insensitive to anyone, but I’ve read enough and heard enough about the history of Cuba to understand that too many good people decided politics was “dirty,” and therefore didn’t get involved. The result was the likes of Machado, Batista and Castro. My point here is not about the history of Cuba, but rather of the lessons of history for all of us – and my concern that the ethos of unselfish and elected public service is being diminished in our own community and our own country.
  • Number two, we lead far too separate lives. We are certainly not a “melting pot,” nor really is anywhere else in America. At our best we could be a tasty salad. I would ask, as one test, for each of us to ask ourselves: Whom did I have in my home in the past year? We talk a “good game” of diversity yet too often remain most comfortable with people like ourselves. To overcome that – and be an example to America -- we must confront ourselves.

Thank you, and God bless you.