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Workshop on Early Childhood Education: Pre-K and Other Alternatives -- Harrisburg, PA

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on June 14, 2005 in Harrisburg, Pa., before the “Policy Workshop on Early Childhood Education: Universal Pre-K and Other Alternatives.”

Mr. Speaker, members of the General Assembly, ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to come before you to discuss a topic that speaks to the future of our respective states and the country we love.

I come from a state not well known for educational achievement (though, to be fair, there are indicators now heading in the right direction). Here is the real world of children and Florida:

  • 21 percent of our children, birth to age 5, live in the full federal definition of poverty.
  • Only 22 percent of adult Floridians have at least a four-year college degree.
  • More than a third of Florida’s high school students drop out.
  • Up to a third of Florida’s children entering first grade are way behind, and then most of them get further behind.
  • In reading, 40 percent of Florida’s children are less than “proficient” on their fifth grade scores.

Now, you might say to yourself: We’re a more progressive state. So I do a little checking and find out you shouldn’t yet be bragging. For instance:

  • 15 percent of your children, birth to age 5, live in the full federal definition of poverty.
  • Only 22 percent of adult Pennsylvanians have at least a four-year college degree. (Both of us fall short of the national average by a full 5 percentage points.)
  • Almost a fifth of Pennsylvania’s high school students drop out.
  • Like Florida, up to a third of Pennsylvania’s children entering first grade are way behind. (And I remind you of a national study that told us if you have a hundred students leaving first grade as poor readers, 88 of those will still be poor readers after the fourth grade.)
  • In reading, almost 40 percent of your fifth graders fall below basic proficiency.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have our work cut out for us. We live in big states – Nos. 4 and 6 in population – and we both face big challenges. Your commonwealth of almost 13 million people and our state of more than 17 million are led by people who would like to be known – sincerely so – as the “education governor,” the “education speaker,” the “education president.” It is worth noting, of course, that the 210,000 babies born each year in Florida, and the 143,000 born in Pennsylvania really do not care whether Republicans or Democrats or are in charge. They can only hope that their leaders, their elders embrace every child.

Yours is a quite extraordinary state. While our recorded history goes back further than yours – 1565 vis-à-vis 1643 – I note the depth of your history and heritage going back to 1681 and William Penn...up through your front-and-center role in the American Revolution, the writing of our nation’s basic documents of liberty and law, the Industrial Revolution, through Gettysburg and the Civil War and, indeed, so many of the significant moments that define America. Moreover, any state that can produce the likes of Rachel Carson, Mary Cassatt, Bill Cosby, Robert Fulton, Lee Iacocca, Tom Mix, Man Ray, Betsy Ross and Ethel Waters has much to build upon for the future.

These are, in some ways, difficult times in which to progress. We live in ideological times, polarized by culture wars. When I started down the path toward “universal prekindergarten” six years ago, I was met all too often by the argument that I was advocating the creation of another "entitlement." My God, I respond, are not our children, all our children, entitled to high-quality basics in this great country? Is it not so very "American" that all children have a real chance to succeed? And is this not a most practical investment in the future of our children and our states?

I want to make three basic points about approach, and then proceed to the specifics of how we achieved what we did in Florida:

No. 1: While high-quality prekindergarten for 4 year olds is an important contribution to success for children, it is not first in my mind. Indeed, I spend most of my energies prenatal to age 3 – working on such issues as high-quality child care – because children can be so far behind by age 4.

No. 2: Building on that point, and realizing that the simply crucial years for language and other development are between birth and age 3, it seems to me crucial that state oversight focus not just on pre-K but all aspects of "school readiness."

No. 3: We will never build a real movement for “school readiness” unless we do so for everyone’s child -- poor, rich and in-between. It is not about children in that neighborhood over there. Rather, it is about all children. This is not the way most people do it. Instead they focus on one corner of the community, or another…and then the rest of the community says, “Oh, I understand it is about those children.” The decency and civility of America ought not to be “means-tested.” High-quality basics ought to be affordable and available to all.

Understanding the principles of the foregoing is fundamental to understanding how we have progressed in Florida. The approach is “universal” – that is, embracing all 210,000 children born each year in our state…all the while realizing, of course, that some children --- particularly but not always those who come from disadvantaged families – are going to need more.

So how did Florida’s UPK come to pass?

A half-dozen years ago, I went to people on both sides of the legislative aisle to introduce bills to achieve this. Those bills went nowhere because here is how power works in Florida, and I suppose in Pennsylvania, too: When the governor and/or the House speaker and/or the Senate president don't want bills heard, they simply never move out of committee. But in our state, and 23 others (not including Pennsylvania), the people have a right to petition and referendum. So I went to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, convinced him this was something important to do, and he then raised the dollars for the constitutional amendment campaign and contributed his own considerable leadership energies.

The constitutional amendment says quite clearly that every parent of a 4 year old in Florida will be entitled to a “high-quality prekindergarten learning opportunity” (that) “shall be voluntary, high quality, free and delivered according to professionally accepted standards.” I believe strongly that parents of 4 year olds (a) deserve to decide for themselves whether -- and where -- they want to take advantage of this, and (b) ought to be able to choose from a variety of high-quality providers. It would be simply unrealistic to find the dollars to make this only a public school model. That would mean spending billions more for classroom space in states as large as yours and my own.

Anyhow, in a state neither noted for educational achievement, nor for spending enough on high-quality education, we went out and won the election -- 59 to 41 percent. That tells me three things: That the people do care...that they are willing to invest the necessary dollars...that they are sometimes ahead of their elected leaders.

After passage, Florida’s lieutenant governor, Toni Jennings, superbly led a 20-member panel – of which I was a member – that met for months, arriving at recommendations for quality embracing such areas as: What credentials do teachers need? What’s the right student-teacher ratio? How many hours a day? What early literacy curricula should be used? And so forth.

Next, the State Board of Education took those recommendations and approved just about all of them. Progress then stalled. Fourteen months ago Florida’s Legislature approved an inadequate set of standards, and Gov. Bush quite rightly vetoed the bill.

Much went wrong in the legislative process, beginning with the reality that most legislators came to the session knowing precious little about the imperative of investment in the early childhood years. That a dollar spent on quality in the early years has a payoff of at least seven dollars later on that won’t be needed for police, prosecution, prison and remediation. That the greatest favor we could do for public education “reform” in this country – and public education is the real world for 86 percent of your children, and 90 percent of Florida’s – would be to deliver the children in far better shape (cognitively, socially, emotionally) to formal school than so many arrive now.

Meantime, not a few legislators were deep into such ideological strawmen as “nanny state” threats, which is as far from the truth as it could possibly be. Indeed, voluntary universal prekindergarten is as “family friendly” a measure as I can contemplate; this is, in fact, all about families having high-quality, accessible choices. Florida’s legislators also were receiving a daily boatload of e mails from some in the faith and private school communities expressing terrifying prognostications – in the full spirit of “Chicken Little” -- about the impending invasion from the state Department of Education out to have something to do with such matters as curricula. Can you imagine?! Horrors! The governor’s veto led to a special session this past December where decent first steps were agreed upon, the most crucial victory being student-teacher ratios of 1-10 (far better than the 1-18 first proposed). That was followed by the struggle in the regular legislative session that ended last month with a significant and extra 5 percent for local administration costs (beyond the $2,500 “voucher” for a core three-hour program in early literacy). Neither the amount nor the hours will ultimately be enough.

I would not want to mislead you in any way. The “shining city on the hill” for voluntary UPK has not been achieved in Florida. Far from it.

Meanwhile, Florida’s plan gives parents a choice of qualified, quality providers that are public, private and faith-based. But there is a real chance that the Florida Supreme Court will rule faith-based providers ineligible. It will then be the state’s constitutional obligation to ensure enough other quality providers – public and private.

Whatever happens in court, there are crucially important things to be fixed and enhanced to achieve the “high quality” the constitutional amendment demands. That includes the proper use of screening tools and assessments, which will be taken up by the State Board of Education in August. It includes arriving at mandated goals to ensure that we 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. While it clearly would be best for every child to have a teacher with a bachelor’s degree certified in early childhood education. we couldn’t do that tomorrow, or next year, even if we would like. We’re a state that needs to hire at least 160,000 new teachers over the next 10 years, and we only have 150,000 now. We’re going to need to “grow” a highly professional early childhood teacher corps. That means legislatively mandated targets must be set – and the incentives to get there.

When people speak of “UPK” in this country, they most often cite three states: Georgia, with half the population of Florida, which started in 1995 with just 8,712 four year olds (compared to Florida that will start with up to 150,000 four year olds)…Oklahoma, one-fifth the size of Florida, and with only a public program…and your neighbor, New Jersey, which by a court order has made a very high-quality program available to only the most disadvantaged children -- just a quarter of the 4 year olds in a state also half the size of Florida.

I tell you up front: We have not yet done enough in Florida to suit me. And I know that only high quality leads to real outcomes. This is not perfect legislation – not even close, I’d tell you. (But I am aware of no legislation – Head Start, among many other examples – that approached perfection at first glance. The best legislation, it seems to me, is about vision that leads to a foundation strong enough to give you and me hope and reason that we can eventually achieve what is genuinely necessary.) “Rome” cannot be built in one session of the Florida Legislature or Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. But we now have a base upon which to build.

For all my own heartache about Florida, and what is not yet achieved, I give you this headline: Beginning this August, my state has authorized spending an extra $387.6 million on voluntary UPK; no state in the Union is making anywhere close to that additional commitment on UPK. (While that is a lot of money, in context it’s just .6 percent of our overall state budget of $63 billion.)

The glass is half-full in Florida. We are a long way from resting on our achievements, and cannot do so until we are assured that we have the highest quality and the best chance at outstanding outcomes for children. Progress takes not only vision, but pushing and shoving. That is the eternal lesson of history.

I have lived an optimistic life, thinking and believing I could accomplish more that way. My personal blend of idealism, naivete and pragmatism has stood me in good stead. It is in that spirit that I share with you an e mail message from one of Florida’s key Republican legislators. Dudley Goodlette wrote this to me shortly after the end of the session: “I know that there is much more to do in order to achieve top quality in the VUPK program, and I am hopeful – and frankly optimistic – that working together we will be able to do so in the near timeframe.” I count on that, ladies and gentlemen.

And so we shall see.

It has been clear for so many years what we need to do, what we simply must do, but now the consequences seem even more real. “Perhaps in the past,” wrote the education historian Diane Ravitch, “it was possible to under-educate a significant portion of the population without causing serious harm to the nation.” But no longer. “The society,” she tells us, “that allows large numbers of citizens to remain uneducated, ignorant or semiliterate squanders its greatest asset, the intelligence of its people."

Or perhaps I should simply quote a New York Times editorial late in the 19th century: “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!”

But I will close with a Pennsylvanian, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who wrote decades ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed,” she reminded us, “it is the only thing that ever has.”

Thank you.