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Launch of a community-wide investment in higher quality -- Miami

The text of a speech given by David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, on Jan. 29, 2008, at a Miami launch of a community-wide investment in higher quality for child care centers and homes.

Ladies and gentlemen, my friends and allies on behalf of children, it is so good to be with you this evening. It has taken a great deal of time to get here, but what is important is that we are here…and we are launching something very special to improve the lives and futures of children.

As Mo Abety will recall so well when we began back in 2000 to see if it might be possible to pass what we now call The Children’s Trust, my single greatest eagerness had to do with investing in improving the quality of child care in our community. So when The Children’s Trust came to be in 2002, this was right at the top of the agenda. But the path to this evening has had many fits and starts, so many twists and turns, and it has taken too long to get to this moment. But I can forget all that because, in fact, we are here with good news for children, good news for those who care about them, good news for those who care for them. You.

You have heard the names of some of the people and organizations who have helped get us to this point, and I salute them all, and many more. But I salute first those in the provider community because without you, without your telling us what you thought would work and what you thought would not work, we never would have arrived at this moment.

Greater Miami, our community, has become known nationally as a model for how to begin to build a movement for all children in the early childhood years. Ten years ago there were just 17 accredited child care sites in this whole place; just this morning, Evelio Torres told me there were 411. It is the greatest growth in accreditation in the country, and you are to be saluted for that. Meanwhile, we in this community – and it always needs to be we -- have developed the best local early childhood website in the country, plus 24-hour phone lines for parents. We deliver high-quality parent skill-building information plus babies’ first book to the parents of every child born each year. We distribute more than 25,000 parent skill-building newsletters each month. We use assessments with thousands of 3 and 4 year olds. And we do it all in three languages.

But that, of course, is not all.

From this community – our community – came the public will to pass “universal prekindergarten” in this state. We live, as you know, in a state that is far from well known nationally for educational achievements. Indeed, in the most recent FCAT results 66,284 fourth graders – or 32 percent of all public school fourth graders – could not read at minimally proficient levels. We passed that constitutional amendment because it was about everyone’s child. This year 126,000 Florida 4 year olds are sitting in free-to-every-family pre-K seats. That constitutional amendment (still with much to fix to make it the “high quality” education the people voted for) was passed because Floridians saw it was about fairness and the future for everyone’s family, they passed it overwhelmingly.

It is also our community that passed The Children’s Trust back in 2002, and passed it, 2-1, because we argued that, yes, some children and their families clearly need more help and ought to get it, but that our efforts would always keep in mind every child. The same principles that raise your children and my own – that is, the right blend of health and education and nurturing – are the same principles that speak to the needs of every child. More than a hundred million dollars for early intervention and prevention is raised annually for The Children’s Trust, costing the median-assessed-value homeowner just $61 a year. Trust dollars mean we can fund health teams in a hundred public schools, and in another 50 this coming August. Trust dollars make possible higher-quality after-school and summer care for 45,000 young people in our community. Trust dollars let us offer “home visiting” to every first-time mother-to-be in our community. Trust dollars give special-needs children a much better chance to reach their full potential. And it is Trust dollars, in the millions, that will be the principal funder of this investment in higher-quality child care that we are launching this evening. (And I offer only one sobering note: All these dollars for all these programs will go away unless we reauthorize The Children’s Trust in perpetuity this coming Aug. 26. Let us each do our part to make sure we have Trust dollars to invest all our lives, and for generations to come.)

Our focus this evening is quite specifically on this quality rating improvement system, which builds from a quite straightforward vision. Were I to tell you about a five-star hotel, or a one-star restaurant, or a four-star movie, you quickly would know whether you were interested. You would have a sense of the quality, or lack thereof – in short, whether you wanted to go there.

Now two of my five children each have two children of their own. Those two daughters have college degrees, husbands with college degrees, and honorable incomes. But I promise you that they struggled trying to find the best child care for the children they love. Cost was a factor, of course, They also wanted child care convenient to their own lives and work. And they most surely wanted their children in a setting where they knew they would be safe. But they begin their searches with no idea as to how to find a child care center that would provide the most stimulating learning environment.

What we are embarking upon this evening will combine standards and accountability – buzzwords we all are familiar with and elements that are crucial in a highly competitive funding environment – with funding and support to assist you with providing children with quality programs.

Rating programs with 1-5 stars can empower parents with the information they need to select programs of higher quality, create a movement for quality in communities, and provide a mechanism for funders to invest in programs to help them create and sustain quality programs.

The standards that will be used will reflect what research tells us makes the most difference for young children. That is what the public will see on the outside. What this will mean to those of you who volunteer your program to participate in Quality Counts is a splendid opportunity (and I, personally, wouldn’t miss it) on a number of fronts. First, you will get to evaluate yourself, seeing your program with new eyes. Second, professional evaluators will come in and assess your program – giving you additional feedback on your program. Based on these assessments and your own priorities, you will work with a technical-assistance specialist who will help you develop a plan for your program. Based on this plan, you can get money to increase the pay for your staff, send your staff to trainings or classes to get credentials or degrees, and get grants for materials and other resources for your program.

This sort of assistance addresses issues you identified and, indeed, the sorts of support that many of you helped design. As we implement Quality Count, we will work with you to make sure this help meets your needs. Now any system like this that is created only by people who work in offices all day would never work. We have created many opportunities to hear from you and have taken your comments to heart. We have created a system where the evaluation is a “tool,” not a “weapon.” No one will be coming into your programs and telling you what you are doing wrong. Moreover, no one will come in and tell you how you had better change…or else. You will guide the creation of a quality improvement plan that reflects your program, your families, and the needs of your children – not a cookie-cutter plan that does not work for you or your program. You will determine what assistance your program needs to meet its goals. Meanwhile, a technical-assistance specialist will help you access other support available in the community. If you are working on accreditation or some other quality improvement process, Quality Counts and its supports can help you get there – not distract you with a different set of requirements and standards.

Now I wish that I could stand before you and tell you that there is suddenly an unlimited pot of money to answer all your challenges. I wish I could tell you that this will require no paperwork. I wish I could tell you that finally you will be fully rewarded for the vital role you play in our community.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, there are limits on what we have money for and limits on how these funds can be spent. We envision 200 centers and 35 family child care homes participating in the first year. We plan to expand significantly in years two and three, and eventually make this available to all Miami-Dade programs. But to do this we need your help.

Today The Children’s Trust, the Early Learning Coalition and The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation are the major funders of this work. If we are to get other funders – both public and private – we must show results. We must show discipline and rigor, and we must show that this investment makes a difference for children and families. To do this we must measure quality, see improvements over time, and invest our limited resources where they will make a proven difference for children.

  • 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.

Know that we are committed to a partnership with you. That we will be working hard to balance your needs and desires with what research tells us produces the best outcomes for young children.

I hope that you will be eager to participate. You will find brochures and growth charts on the tables for you to take. These have the contact information for the initiative and outline the steps you need to take to participate. I would encourage you to complete an application and sign up soon. Based on our capacity, we will be enrolling groups of about 25 centers at a time, scaling up to 200 this year. This means that everyone in this room cannot be included immediately. I ask you to be patient with us as we enroll as many programs as quickly as we can while still providing the level of support we have committed to this evening.

Many of you who have heard me speak have heard me reference a “Promised Land” – the place and time when all children have all they need to be healthy, successful and ready for school and life. Quality Counts will not take us all of the way to the Promised Land, but this first year will certainly take us closer.

It means a lot to me, and to all who have worked so hard on this, that you are here this evening. Most people say they like change; most people, I have come to realize, really do not. I am not sure myself sometimes that I like change, but I surely know change is necessary for me, and that it is necessary for each of us to grow. Really grow. My soul is an optimistic, idealistic one…and it is that temperament that drives me, But I want to quote someone who never has been noted for his optimism or idealism…indeed, quite to the contrary. Half a millennium ago, Niccolo Macchiavelli wrote this in his classic work, “The Prince: “There is nothing more difficult to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of the new order of things.”

This is the “new order of things.” I am not telling you that “the new order” is easy. Most things worthwhile take real work and real commitment and, I would say, an optimistic soul. Life is all about choices – your choice, my choice, and the opportunity for all our children to have the wherewithal to have the best possible choices in their lives.

I think back to my brother being a Salk polio vaccine pioneer a half-century ago, and it strikes me that many of you in this room – I would hope all of you – will be pioneers. Years from now, we can have an opportunity to look back at this evening and see it as great moment of caring and investment for the children of our community. Every child deserves real access to genuine high-quality early childhood basics, and that is the purpose of this investment.

Now it is up to you. But we are in this together. Thank you, and God bless you all.