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Annual Children's Week awards dinner -- Tallahassee

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on April 4, 2011, to the annual Children's Week dinner in Tallahassee.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will do my best this evening to be brief, polite, respectful and straightforward. It will be hard because, truth to tell, I find myself increasingly angry. On the other hand, a little bit of outrage could do us all some good…provided we channeled that outrage constructively. The time to do some of that “channeling” is now because there is so much happening here that is not good at all for children. Such surely will happen if we fail to speak up.

These are, I know, tough times. That’s obvious everywhere. Sometimes twice a week, or even more often, I find myself helping at least one now-unemployed person – often someone who has worked hard and faithfully for years – try to connect toward another job. (It’s worth mentioning that if businesses and institutions – private and public -- don’t have much loyalty these days, who possibly should be surprised?)

On the topic of children, please do not ask me to be patient. I don’t have time to be. Please do not tell me that once we emerge from these economic times that children will have their “turn.” When has that ever really happened?

Do not remind me that everyone loves children. I already know that. But what does such “love” really mean? I give you one definition of what would be of “real love” through a man I much admire -- Isaac Prilleltensky, the dean of the College of Education at the University of Miami. He writes: “Acting compassionate toward our own children is not good enough. What about the needs of other children who suffer from hunger, abuse, exploitation, shame and exclusion? Helping victims of disease, poverty or abuse is not good enough either. We need to extend our compassion beyond our immediate circle of care, and we need to prevent poverty, illness and abuse, not just respond to them after the fact.”

How naïve am I to believe that in God’s world – our world, our country, our state – everyone’s child should have the real opportunity to dream of a full and good life? Does anyone think we are anywhere close to that now? Do not typecast me as “revolutionary” or “radical.” I’m a middle-of-the-road fellow who simply believes in the “American dream,” and believes in that for everyone.

I believe in research and measuring outcomes, and know that we already have plenty of research to tell us that a dollar invested wisely in high-quality programs will have an enormous return – money we won’t need to spend on police and prosecution and prison and remediation of all sorts. Now, we have new research that takes us a significant step further. Listen to this from the latest New Yorker magazine quoting Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the nationally known professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. He says: “We now know that adversity early in life can not only disrupt brain circuits that lead to problems with literacy, it can also affect the development of the cardiovascular system and the immune system and metabolic regulatory systems, and lead to not only more problems learning in school but also greater risk for diabetes and hypertension and heart disease and cancer and depression and substance abuse.”

If we have all this research, why would we possibly settle for anything less than affordable, high-quality basics for all children? (Or, said another way, exactly what you and I would want for our own children and grandchildren.)

You have before you someone who has led a full life – an optimistic life, an idealistic life, a practical life, a learning life. I have loved and love my wife – for 47+ years now, and I will forever. Loved and love and always will love my children – all five of them. And my grandchildren, too. Love my work, always have, and still do – so much that I have never missed a day of work in almost 50 years. Love to read – have averaged at least a book a week since I was 6 years old – more history and biographies than anything else because there is so much to learn from people and from the past. Passed on playing golf and tennis because I thought there were more interesting and important things to do, and, besides, came to think that there would be plenty of time to rest and relax in the next world. Was a paid skeptic for 35 years at seven newspapers, but blessed to be never cynical.

Some of you may recall that Joe Friday on “Dragnet” used to say something to the effect of “Just the facts, ma’am,” or something similar. Here are just 10 “facts for Florida.”:

  • 220,000 children are born each year.  90 percent of our children go to public school.
  • 28 percent of them cannot read at minimally proficient levels in third grade.
  • 61 percent of our sophomores cannot read at grade level.
  • One in every five of our children lives in the full federal definition of poverty.
  • Hundreds of thousands of our children have no health insurance, and we have the fourth worst percentage of uninsured in the country.
  • We’re plain last in per capita funding for public education.
  • We pay at least $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile, and not even $3,000 for a pre-K slot.
  • It costs more than $20,000 to incarcerate an adult – and we spend just a third of that for each public school student.

What is wrong with us? What could we possibly be thinking? The way we are doing things now just doesn’t make sense in a world where we must invest in workforce development and hoped-for economic growth. Fulfilling our dreams, Florida’s dreams, depends on our children being prepared to compete in a 21st century world.

We live in a state that were it a country would be the 20th largest economy in the world. We want our state to be competitive in the 21st century, but Florida could not possibly be unless we invest fully in the future of children – healthy children, educated children who have the wherewithal to enter the world and the workforce with hope, confidence and the tools to succeed.

We should not wait for so-called “better times” to invest in children. Now is the best time to be smart and wise in our investments. Do not tell me that we live in a country that doesn’t have the dollars to do the basics. I am being neither “political” nor unpatriotic when I note that somehow we can find $400 million every single day to bring democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan. Somehow we can find the money for prisons and roads and so much else. In the words of a David Brooks column in The New York Times: “The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated.”

I am alarmed at what is happening now. Cut-cut-cut. Short-term thinking. Shortsighted thinking. Sometimes-ideological thinking. The children cannot speak up…don’t have the armies of lobbyists that others have…don’t give to political campaigns. The way we do things now cannot possibly get us to the future in a way that is good for all of us. The consequences of the way we do things now are sobering. I give you one stark consequence, via a national report from a group of senior retired admirals and generals who told us this: Three of every four young people, ages 17 to 24, cannot enter the American military – cannot enter because they have a physical problem, a substance abuse problem, a criminal justice problem, or an academic problem. This, my friends, is a matter of national security.

Some of you know that I recently chaired a blue-ribbon panel on the case of a little girl named Nubia. She died in darkness, in fear and in terror. Hers was an evil death. The only saving grace is that she surely is in Heaven. I have prayed for Nubia frequently, and I pray in her name this evening that we Floridians will come to insist that every child have the best possible chance to lead a fulfilled and loving life. “Insist,” I say…because this can only happen if we call on the best within ourselves, and the best in others, to do right by every child.

This is my dream, and dreams can come true. But you and I need to make them happen. That means building a movement for all children. And I know that we can, and I believe that we will.

God bless all of us, and everyone’s child.

Thank you.