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Florida Tax Watch statewide summit -- Orlando

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Oct. 14, 2005 in Orlando, Fla., before a statewide summit of business executives, hosted by Florida Tax Watch, on “voluntary universal prekindergarten” and quality.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my mission this morning to tell you where we have been, where we are and where we need to go in fulfilling the promise and the constitutional mandate of “voluntary universal prekindergarten” in Florida.

You and I live in a very special place – the fourth largest state in the country, the 15th largest economy in the world. A place that people love to visit and a place where people love to live (for climate, for cost of living, for much more). A state with a marvelous blend of cultures, races, national origins, languages, faiths and different ways of looking at things. A state with a lower-than-any-other-state percentage of its population of workforce age, meaning we have extra burdens to support the needs of a population growing in size and diversity. A state of 17 million people with 205,000 more children born each year. Our future depends on those children. Ninety percent of those children, our children, will go to our public schools.

We have a governor who wants his great legacy to be children -- all children -- reading. Good for him, and good for all of us. What a great legacy that would be. Under his leadership we have made -- albeit working from a poorer numbers than most states -- impressive progress. One example of the good news here is that the most recent fourth grade reading results in Florida show 71 percent meeting minimum proficiency standards -- up from 48 percent just a half-dozen years ago. No other state has made such a percentage gain, and that story deserves to be told. But this story does, too: In third grade a full third of Florida’s public school students did not meet minimum proficiency standards for reading, and if you go to high school, 68 percent of students aren’t meeting those minimum reading-proficiency standards.

Return now with me to the fourth grade where we have our most reading-proficient-on-grade-level students. Despite all the commendable progress, at the current rate of gain, and assuming we continue our annual average increase of 3.8 points, best case says it will take eight more years to reach the goal of grade-level performance by all fourth grade students. That’s 2014. Now if you stop to think about it, the fourth grade student in 2014 was probably born this year, and his or her high school graduation will come in 2022. That is a very long time from now.

So what are the headlines here? That we cannot wait. That we simply must accelerate progress. That none of us can rest.

Therefore, our work must begin before formal school. High-quality early childhood development, care and education are not “feel-good” concepts, but rather hard-edged imperatives -- crucial to the future of Florida’s children. While I focus this morning on “voluntary universal prekindergarten,” children can be mighty far behind by the time they get to a quality age-4 program. It behooves us, then, to push for high-quality basics from prenatal through age 3. While I have been intimately involved in what people now call “VUPK,” most of my personal energies are spent on the years before age 4.

Let me give you just two quick pieces of national research to bolster this case of the early years and high quality:

No. 1: A child who can read by the third grade will probably never be involved with the criminal justice system.

No. 2: If 50 children leave first grade as poor readers, 44 of them will remain poor readers after the fourth grade.

The headline here? Simple: You want to make Florida a more educated state, invest up front. That sort of investment can keep us from having to pay the almost $2 billion this state currently spends annually on the back-end costs of re-teaching. So you know I didn’t pick up that figure from thin air, I tell you that 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 business people here today know of the power of return on investment, and that is my main argument here.

You have before you someone who has been part of Florida since moving here as a teenager in 1956. Went to public schools, a public university, was married here, two of our five children were born here, and we live here. And we love it here.

So my mission today is most certainly not to “diss” our state. But we are hiding our heads in the Florida’s special sand if we do not ‘ fess up to our still-dismal dropout rate, our frequently uncompetitive teacher salaries, our lower-than-the-national-average college graduation rate – and the up to 30 percent of this country’s children who start formal school significantly behind, with most of those then getting further behind. Those numbers do not help us take advantage of Florida’s potential as a world-important center for the 21st century.

I’m not picking on Florida. It’s a national problem. Listen to this sentence from a New York Times story of recent weeks: “Only about half of this year’s high school graduates have the reading skills they need to succeed in college, and even fewer are prepared for college-level science and math courses.”

Our dialogue today is about the very future of our state and nation.

I come here wearing at least five hats:

No. 1: As a journalist who loved newspapers so much that I never missed a day of work in 35 years (which is also the mark of a truly obsessed human being!).

No. 2: As a business executive – before my so-called “retirement” -- running a $350 million business, and thus someone who knows first-hand the power of a truly educated workforce.

No. 3: As a parent and grandparent who believes the same fundamentals of high-quality education, health and nurturing that raise your children, and my own, can make a vital, telling difference in all children’s lives and futures.

No. 4: As a pragmatic person with a vision that embraces all children. Truth to tell, the people of Florida passed the constitutional amendment back in 2002 because it was about all parents of all 4 year olds having the opportunity to participate. The people voted, 59-41 percent, to mandate “a high-quality prekindergarten experience…delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” That, my friends, is not a close election.

No. 5: And, finally, as a “born-again” early childhood advocate. My story is simple: In 1996 when I was still the publisher of The Miami Herald Lawton Chiles asked me to be on the Governor’s Commission on Education, a two-year civic assignment to come up with recommendations in six areas essential to the future of education. Then, somehow, I got euchred into chairing the task force on “readiness,” a concept of which I knew nothing. What I came to learn reinvigorated my purposefulness in life and led me in 1999 to devote my fulltime energies to the cause of high-quality early childhood development, care and education.

The power of the early years can be captured in this one sentence from a recent Newsweek article on “Reading Your Baby’s Mind”: “The helpless, seemingly clueless infant staring up at you from his crib, limbs flailing, drool oozing, has a lot more going on inside his head than you ever imagined.” And in that head, ladies and gentlemen, is the very future of Florida.

I am respectful of the progress that we have made thus far in “voluntary universal prekindergarten.” I am mindful of the fact that good public policy and even the most high-minded politics seldom lead to perfection on the first go-around. The Legislature, after one false start, did set the guidelines that have led already to 80,000 4 year olds sitting in pre-K seats this fall, and 4,500 public, private and faith-based providers participating. Some victories on the road to “high quality” already have been won, notably the student-teacher ratios that are now 1-10.

But much more must be done if VUPK is to make enough difference in the futures of Florida’s 4 year olds. I am going to mention just two areas, though there are other important areas being discussed today that also deserve your attention, and your energetic advocacy:

My No. 1 issue is teacher credentials. You’d be horrified – or should be – if your child’s third grade teacher didn’t have a college degree…and certification in the area in which she or he is teaching. The research tells us clearly of the direct correlation between teacher credentials and student outcomes.

To meet this goal will take time and money – and your support. We live in a state that must hire at least 160,000 public school teachers in the next decade, and we only have 150,000 now…so there is no quick fix here. The UPK Advisory Council, led by the lieutenant governor and on which I served, recommended the Legislature mandate this to be achieved in two stages: (a) Every lead teacher in pre-K have an associate’s degree in early childhood within five years, and (b) a bachelor’s degree in early childhood within eight years. What the Legislature has done thus far is to make those goals “aspirational,” which is “lovely,” but will never get us to where we need to be. We simply must have professionally prepared teachers who understand how young children learn and how to implement developmentally appropriate learning experiences that promote thinking, creativity, problem-solving and social-emotional growth.

The No. 2 area has to do with assessments and outcome measures. Both are important, but they are not the same. Take outcome measures first. You and I would agree that the state is entitled to know what difference specific programs, curricula, providers and teachers make. This is, after all, the people’s money – your money. So by law, the state will ascertain “readiness” in kindergarten. In so doing it will be (a) critical to use the right instruments (a matter the state Department of Education is wrestling with now), and (b) vital to understand that we are not talking about “baby FCATs” for 5 year olds. High-stakes testing in the early childhood years is very inappropriate.

So let us now go to 4 year olds. Not all show up with the same skills, language and level of development. A provider might have a superb program, but if the children who participate in the pre-K program are second-language learners or developmentally delayed, they probably won’t do as well on the kindergarten assessments. Some won’t “catch up” in the pre-K program’s typical 180 days, though they should have made real progress. Progress for the individual child is what is truly important here.

Proper assessments – appropriate for the age of the children, cultural background, and language -- done at the beginning and the end of the “school year” help a pre-K provider show what specific progress the children made while in the prekindergarten program and how children can be further helped to meet their potential. Each child should be evaluated on current performance vis-à-vis prior performance, not in comparison with other children.

That way, teachers and parents will know the gaps and deficits at the beginning of the year…have every opportunity to ensure the right approach is taken with the individual child…and by the end of the year they will know what progress has been made and what still remains to do. Nothing could be more “family friendly.” This matter will be taken up by the Board of Education this month, with a recommendation – a strong one, I hope – for the next legislative session.

I have emphasized just two points, but want you to understand that there are others (including the necessity of investing enough in each child to ensure high quality) that deserve discussion, and action. We have much to do – together.

Florida is a national pioneer in “voluntary universal prekindergarten.” Only Georgia and Oklahoma have preceded us. Other states are looking at us – trying to learn from what we do well, making sure to learn from our mistakes. There is a burgeoning national movement toward high-quality pre-K and all the early childhood basics.

It is, yes, a moral cause…a matter of basic decency as Americans. But I argue this today as a most practical matter. “School readiness” speaks directly to investing in the skills that make for a productive, educated, competitive, high-skilled and creative community.

Florida has a foundation upon which to build. This is our moment to make sure that we do not fail our children. Or ourselves.

What you have heard today was new to me only a few years ago, and may be new to some of you today. But we have, in fact, known so much for such a long time. I close, in that spirit, by quoting a New York Times editorial written more than a century ago: “Given one generation of children properly born and wisely trained…what a vast proportion of human ills would disappear from the face of the earth.”

My friends, the mission seems clear. Your leadership is crucial.

Thank you, and God bless you.