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Florida Council of 100 -- Palm Beach

Speech given by David Lawrence Jr., the president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Nov. 14, 2013, before the Florida Council of 100 in Palm Beach

I come here with the deepest respect for the difference that this council's leadership has made this past half-century. Education and economic development - inextricably linked -- have been atop your priorities (and never more so than in recent years). I come here as your ally, as a longtime Floridian who shares your hunger for our state being the best we can be, beginning with our children.

Until I was 14 I grew up on a farm that while it didn't succeed as a going concern, did succeed in giving me a lifelong appetite for meaningful work. My father and mother, both almost 40, started all over again in Florida, "the land of opportunity." Their proudest achievement was raising nine children to live good and giving lives. None of us could ever have afforded Harvard or some such. But we were the blessed beneficiaries of public education, and all nine of us were graduated from Florida or Florida State.

We came to a tiny town called Oneco between Bradenton and Sarasota. I went to Manatee, the then all-white high school; the black kids were bused across the river to Lincoln Memorial. When I was a senior in high school, the sheriff led the Ku Klux Klan through the streets of black east Bradenton. When I was at UF, the undergraduate division was desegregated. Those were such different times.

Just a few of us in my high school graduating class of perhaps 300 seniors went to college. Most took jobs digging wells or ditches, or selling or fixing cars, or maybe in retail. None of us worried about China or anyplace else competing with us as an economy or in education. We took for granted that we were the best in the world in education, and quite sure we always would be. Everyone seemed to be able to get a job - and do so with not much more than the bare basics of education. That is true no more. No more...ever more.

In my time a young woman becoming pregnant in high school was a gossipy scandal, and she was hustled off to a Florence Crittenton Home to give birth. Today, more than 40 percent of births are to single mothers - half with no significant other. Those children are as good as your children and my own, but so often grow up in a far more challenging environment. All of us would want, in every instance possible, children in homes with two loving, caring, nurturing adults.

In my growing-up years, all nine of us would gather with our parents around the dinner table as my father would quiz us all on matters of government and politics and the news of the day. Today that is a far more infrequent scene in families at any socio-economic level.

My mother worked really hard, but never outside the home. She was always there for us. Today two-thirds of mothers with children between birth and age 5 work outside the home. In my growing-up years the percentage was half that. I am not expecting that world to be back, but I am saying the consequences are entitled to be considered.

The earliest reading moment I can remember is on my mother's lap and hearing "The Little Engine That Could," which turns out to be, of course, a metaphor for a meaningful life. What she gave me was a lifelong love of reading, and today I read a book or more every week.

But there is much more to today's story or, as Paul Harvey used to say, "Here is the rest of the story": A while back I visited an early learning center in our state. I was reading "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" to 21 three and four year olds. The book's cover showed Mr. MacDonald - in overalls, a red and white striped shirt and, above, a straw hat from which two bunny ears peeked through). Not one of those 3 and 4 year olds knew it was a bunny rabbit; in fact, two of them said, "Cow"! Just imagine what shape these children are going to be in when they enter formal school. Similar stories can be told in every one of Florida's 67 counties. This very year, with the generous help of Carol and Barney Barnett, there are 1,700 trained volunteers throughout Florida in a Children's Movement program called Reading Pals, working with children from pre-K to grade 3, helping them to learn to read, and succeed. Weekly I spend time with two 4 year olds - both lovely children, both way behind. Can they catch up? I will do my best, and I hope they will, but it is not a given.

The case I want to make this morning is that the wisest, biggest-return-on-investment path to genuine public education reform would be to deliver the children in far better shape to formal school. I do so with the greatest respect for the progress being made in Florida in public education, the real world for almost 90 percent of our children. I share Marshall Criser's and your bullishness on the importance of Common Core, and agree that a rigorous, make-us-think curriculum is vital to the future of community and country. I know governors going way back, with your support, have made education a priority. Indeed, it was Lawton Chiles who asked me to serve on the Governor's Commission on Education back in 1996 and chair its "school readiness" task force. What I learned led me to retire from journalism after 35 years and seven newspapers as reporter, editor or publisher.

I know the work in which you have been front and center - in greater accountability for students and teachers, in grading schools, in school choice, in online courses. Progress is obvious - in NAEP scores, for instance. Just the other day, the latest such scores showed our state to be the only state to have narrowed the gap between black and white students at both grade levels and in reading and math. But I also read that the director of accountability for the state's Department of Education noted that 60-70 percent of those tested remain at the "basic" and "below basic" levels. Meanwhile, I know the latest FCATs show 40 percent of fourth graders cannot read at even minimally proficient levels, and that an even larger percentage of high school sophomores cannot read at grade level. We are clearly a long way from the "promised" land of American achievement.

In the time I have been given, I want to make just five points:

No. 1: About the importance of parents: It all starts here. Nothing is more important to a child's future than a caring, nurturing, knowledgeable parent. With the fewest of exceptions, I believe that parents give birth to children they love; at the same time, I believe that a great many parents, however eager to do right by their children, so often know so little about what to do. Here's just one example of what parents - any parent - could do, using a supermarket as a splendid scene for vital early literacy moments. A child, perhaps age 2, is in the shopping cart. The mother goes down the aisles pointing out shapes and sizes and colors. She says, "Let's get three of these or those - 1-2-3" and so forth. I am convinced that if parents knew what to do on behalf of their children's futures, most of them would work hard to do so. And I am encouraged by my conversations with Governor Scott about putting in his budget the dollars to make possible 24-hour phone lines, available in three languages every single day and hour wherein a parent could call and get highly localized information - county by county - as to the basics of how you can know what makes a child care center a brain-stimulating place, or how to connect your child to health insurance. This works because we now have the Internet, because the information would be localized for each county, because we have 211 lines in all 67 counties - and needs to be accompanied by real dollars for outreach (because, I know from journalism, that people will only be conscious of matters when they are present and real in their lives). I oppose any sense of a "nanny state." Nobody ought to take over a parent's job as first teacher. But I do believe that parents must have the information to know what's best for them to do for their children. This is where government can play a rightful role - in providing high-quality information so parents can make the best possible decisions for their children.

No. 2: About what the research tells us:

(a) That 85 percent of brain growth occurs by age 3, meaning the most important learning years are the early childhood years from before birth to age 8. Learning must be understood as a continuum; no one year can be a "magic bullet." If I were a school principal, I would fall in love with the children before they came to my school. In the spirit of the public education term, "feeder patterns," I would work with my neighborhood child care centers and family child care homes to align, to the practical degree possible, curriculum and professional development. Child care is the reality for most children today, and most of it is not quality. The state plays a major part in funding child care, and should insist that taxpayer dollars be used only for real quality. That is not the case now.

(b) We know that 30 percent of our children are way behind when they enter formal school; most then get further behind. What makes the big difference for teachers is not class size, but rather children eager and ready to learn - cognitively, socially and emotionally. Is it any wonder that half the teachers leave the profession within five years? It's not mostly about the money; teachers knew what the money was when they took the job. But they come to find out that teaching is so frequently triaging, and thus no child gets enough attention in a deeply divided day.

(c) The research also tells us that if a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, then at the end of fourth grade 88 percent of them remain poor readers.

No. 3: About how only real quality makes a real difference: Only quality leads to outcomes that make a real difference in outcomes for children. It pains me to no end that we spend less today per child in our VPK program than we did when it started back in the 2005-2006 school year. The 175,000 children in that program - and their parents - deserve more. It also pains me to no end that tens of thousands of children are on the waiting list for school readiness programs and, therefore, their parents are pushed out of the workforce or must spend a huge chunk of their income on child care.

I am a glass-at-least-half-full fellow, and I do see progress - with the governor's leadership, with real and growing leadership in the Legislature, from leaders such as Gary Chartrand and others. I see an Office of Early Learning focused on skill-building for pre-K teachers. I see Florida's nationally recognized standards for what 4 year olds ought to know. I see figures that show 79 percent of children who complete VPK are ready for kindergarten as compared to 55 percent who did not attend. I see a growing appetite to assess 4 year olds in not only ways that measure cognitive development but also in social-emotional growth - and a willingness to share all that with parents. I see impressive work by Early Learning Coalitions that know their communities best. But we still do not have anywhere near the quality in many programs - nor the data to let us know what is really working, and what is not...and remember, that only high quality brings real results for child outcomes. You - we - ought to insist on such data.

No. 4: About building a movement for all children: The same principles that raised our five children, and now grandchildren, are the same basics that all children need. You cannot build a real "movement" based on "those" children, whomever they may be. It must be about "us" and "our children," all our children. This, of course, is a moral imperative in God's world, but let us focus here on the practical imperative: All of us want to live in safe and secure neighborhoods; we want people to be able to buy homes and cars; we want people to pay their fair share of societal burdens. Make note of these words from Lillian Katz, one of this country's great proponents of early investment: "We must recognize that the welfare of our children is intimately linked to the welfare of all other people's children. After all, when one of our children needs life-saving surgery, someone else's child will perform it. If one of our children is harmed by violence, someone else's child will be responsible.... The good life for our own children," she says, "can be secured only if a good life is secured for all other people's children."

No. 5: About the implications for the future of our beloved country: We are a nation amid vast and fast change. Just this past year, there were born - for the first time - more children of color than otherwise. By mid-century what we call "minorities" will be in the majority. It is in everyone's best interests for every child to have the best possible chance to succeed. I try to keep in mind what Fred Rogers once said: "Our goal as a nation must be to make sure that no child is denied the chance to grow in knowledge and character from the very first years." In Mister Rogers Neighborhood, he added, "every child is welcome into the world of learning - not just a few, not just ones from certain neighborhoods but every child."

Business people often complain about the quality of high school and college graduates, little knowing that the patterns are being established from the earliest moments. Yes, we surely can and should be learning all our lives, but we must be so very aware that the windows of learning are open the widest in the first years of life.

We hear so often about America being "exceptional," and we are in many special ways. Like you, I love this country. Like you, I also need to face up to reality. We have, as one example, the world's highest incarceration rate. (You no doubt read the other day that Florida is now contemplating opening several shuttered prisons.) We also have rising inequality. Please do not label me either "socialist" or "social engineer." I am a centrist American who believes in the free- enterprise system and thinks our country works best somewhere near the middle. But we cannot ignore the reality of what Jeb Bush said in a recent interview with NBC's Brian Williams: "I think the great challenge for our country is the lack of social mobility. Which means that if you're poor today, there's a higher probability you'll stay poor. And if you're born rich, there's a higher probability you'll stay rich. And that's not the America that people want. And the one thing that we've got to get right is to assure that mobility comes through high-quality education." Amen, I would say.

It all comes back to education and parents and priorities.

It also comes back to how we spend the people's money. For one example, you and I ought to insist that all children whose child care is supported with taxpayer dollars be placed in high-quality programs. For another example, we spend $2,383 for a pre-K slot, and $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile, not including medical and mental help so often needed. How wise is this? The future of our communities, our country and our children will depend on setting the wisest priorities and putting real dollars behind them. In the words of the conservative columnist David Brooks: "The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated."

A couple years back Governor Bush recommended to me an important book called "Disrupting Class" by the Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. Listen to just two sentences from that book: "A rather stunning body of research is emerging that suggests that starting...reforms at kindergarten, let alone in elementary, middle or high school, is far too late. By some estimates," he writes, "98 percent of education spending occurs after the basic intellectual capacities of children have been mostly determined."

I want us to be sobered about these realities. Indeed, I would like us to be alarmed. What does it say about us that three of every four 17 to 24 year olds in our country cannot enter the American military because they have an academic problem, a criminal justice problem, a substance abuse problem, or a physical problem? You and I both know that educated people are fundamental to the national security of a country you and I love.

I am eager for your direct involvement in the early childhood years. This Council of 100 strongly supported the passage of the pre-K constitutional amendment; now we must make it the high quality that leads to powerful outcomes for children. What you do personally can be so very meaningful. In the spirit of those 4 year olds I am mentoring every week, I hope you might encourage your employees - and yourselves -- to do the same. I hope some of you will serve on your local Early Learning Coalitions. I hope all of you will visit - as Marlene O'Toole insists for every member of her vital State House committee - child care centers to see what is really happening there. I hope some of you might serve on School Boards -- and in that and other ways push for superintendents to understand the imperative of connections with the child care community.

The power within each of you is enormous. Just imagine what we could do together. I am eager for your insistence on quality in the early learning years. Eager for your deepest understanding that it is so fully "American" for every child to have the chance to succeed...eager for everyone understanding that the future of our country literally depends on this.

Should we fail, we will be doomed to what Karl Menninger told us many years ago: "What we do to children, they will do to society."

I have the greatest faith in what you can and you will do for children and community and country. God bless all the children, and God bless all of us.