Editors note: David Lawrence of Miami, the former publisher of The Miami Herald, is one of the state’s leading crusaders for children. As head of the The Children’s Movement of Florida, he lobbies hard for better early childhood education, health care and more. The organization’s website is a hub for teaching children as well as their parents how to read and write and understand mathematics and hygiene. Here is an edited transcript of his remarks to the League of Women Voters of Collier County — a talk he had to deliver via phone because brushfires closed Interstate 75 that day.
For years I have admired the League of Women Voters. You represent the very best of the American ethos. You are fighters for what is right in our republic, beginning with everyone having the right to vote, and being able to do so with ease and respect.
I have been coming to Collier for a half-century now and have seen this county becoming much more populous and more beautiful.
When many people think of Naples, they see sandy beaches, manicured lawns and beautiful homes (made possible by the highest per capita income in the state), plus the national treasures that are the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades.
What also comes to my mind is your growing diversity. Your 80,000 children were born in 118 countries; more than half of your students are children of color, and almost half come from homes where English is not the first language). Undeniably, many of your children are in very poor shape.
I acknowledge quickly that you know far more than I about the 330,000 residents of Collier County and those 3,500 children born each year. But I know enough to tell you these two things, and more:
One: 47 percent of your third graders cannot read with minimal proficiency.
Two: Only half of your high school sophomores can read at grade level.
In the pursuit of trying to better understand this community, I read a week’s worth of the Naples Daily News. There I saw stories about the cost of deputies in Collier County’s elementary schools, another about a mother who is accused of hiding drugs in her 2-year-old’s shoe, and yet another about three elementary students who face charges of intentionally burning land, and still another about three separate domestic violence arrests in just one day.
All remind me of the imperative of getting the early years right.
Meanwhile, the national research tells me these three things:
1: That 85 percent of brain growth occurs by age 3.
2: That 30 percent of children start school behind, and then most of them get even further behind.
3: That if a hundred children leave first grade not really knowing how to read, 88 are in similar shape at the end of fourth grade.
Children with momentum in first grade, chances are, will have momentum all their lives. Children without momentum get triaged and tracked in school — and pay a lifelong price. So do we all.
What we are talking about today is a matter of global competitiveness. Listen to this from a Council on Foreign Relations task force led by Condoleezza Rice and Joel Klein: Our country’s “most foundational strengths are its liberty, democracy, capitalism, equality of opportunity, and unique ability to generate innovation.”
Then, says this report, “Without a wide base of educated and capable citizens, these strengths will fade, and the United States will lose its leading standing in the world. Urgent shifts in education policy are necessary to help the country hold onto its status as an educational, economic, military and diplomatic global leader.” And it all begins in the early learning years.
It is also a matter of national security. Listen to this from a national report from retired generals and admirals: Three of every four young people, ages 17 to 24, cannot enter the American military. Cannot enter because of an academic problem, a physical problem, a substance-abuse problem, or a criminal-justice problem. This ought to alarm all of us.
We hear so frequently in Florida about the gains we are making in public education (the real world for 90 percent of Florida’s children, and 94 percent of Collier children). I will concede — even affirm — some progress. I have the greatest respect for Kamela Patton, your school superintendent. She has very tough challenges, including the fourth-largest percentage of English Language Learners in the state. Her students — your students — did better than most in the most recent FCATs. Having said that, I also know — as she does — that Collier County is a long way from any “promised land” of education. (As an important aside, please also know that I love your First Book program that reaches so many at-risk children.)
The wisest possible path we could take toward public education “reform” won’t be in the fourth grade or the seventh grade or in high school. The wisest possible investment would be in those years from before birth until age 8. The greatest possible gift for the teachers in Collier’s 30 elementary schools would be to bring children to kindergarten in superb shape — intellectually, socially and emotionally — so they can truly succeed in school and in life. Then teachers could do far more teaching and far less triaging — and love their work and contribute to far more children being successful.
Recipes for success
For children to succeed, we need knowledgeable, nurturing, loving parents. For children to succeed, we need high-quality, brain-stimulating child care. For children to succeed, we must have healthy children with real relationships with doctors and nurses.
Becoming educated begins in the very earliest years. In his book “Disrupting Class,” the Harvard professor Clayton Chrisensen tells us: “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.”
Moreover, the effects are lifelong. Dr. Jack Shonkoff, the nationally known professor of pediatrics at Harvard, tells us: “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.”
You and I live in an ever more connected world. If we want Collier County and our country to be full of optimistic, contributing people, we will not be able to hide from those who will grow up to do us, and themselves, great harm. Dr. Karl Menninger reminds us: “What we do to children, they will do to society.”
If we want ...
Believing in all children, we help all of us. It simply makes sense — practical, economic and moral — to be mindful of how everyone is doing. If we want safe and secure neighborhoods, if we want less crime, if we want more people to grow up to own homes and cars, and more people to share the basic costs of societal well-being, then we should know of the quite extraordinary evidence of the power of early investment and the power to grow children who dream and have a real chance to achieve those dreams.
In the words of Fred Rogers, with whom my children grew up and perhaps yours: “Our goal as a nation,” he said, “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.”
Ours is a much changed country, and yours is a much changing county. This past year we became a country where more children of color are born than non-Hispanic whites. By 2020 there will be more children of color period. By the middle of this century what we now call “minorities” will be in the majority. That’s the reality, and we should appreciate, respect and “get with” that reality.
Built from the realities I have heretofore describe, I now spend most of my energies on the imperative of “school readiness” — that is, high-quality early care, development and education. From that vision came the passage of a constitutional amendment for free pre-K for all 4 year olds in Florida. From that vision the people of my community agreed to raise their property taxes for high-quality early intervention and prevention. That’s $100 million extra a year. From that vision, we have been building The Children’s Movement of Florida, with now more than 325,000 followers pushing to make children — all children — the No. 1 priority for investment in our state. So many of our priorities seem backward. In Florida, for example, we seemingly can get a road built or repaved anytime we want, and yet invest precious little for children (even while we have all the research to tell us that a dollar invested wisely in brain-stimulating care and education will return at least seven dollars in money we won’t need to spend on police and prosecution and prison).
Follow our money
You have before you a fully registered Independent with deep concerns about the priorities for spending the people’s money — that is, our money. How can it possibly be wise, for one example, for Florida to spend a piddling $2,383 on a pre-K slot for a 4-year-old, and $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile. I do not buy the argument that times are tough, and we don’t have the money. The New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us: “The problem is not that America lacks resources. The problem is that they are misallocated.”
Meanwhile, please do not take the following comment as “political” but rather the facts. These past dozen years we have spent more than a trillion and a half dollars to bring democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq — perhaps a well-intended cause, but not one especially likely to succeed — while at the same time one in every five children in America, and one in six in Collier County, lives in full poverty. How can this be in the richest, most generous country in the world? How can it be that almost 30,000 children in Collier County have no health insurance? Surely we are a better people than this. Do not label me “socialist” or “radical.” I am a middle-of-the-road fellow who simply believes in the opportunity of the “American dream” for everyone.
I lead an optimistic and idealistic life, and feel blessed by that. The principles of health and education and nurturing and love that our children received — and, now, their children — should be the fundamentals for all children in a society that seeks to be good as well as wise. What could be more “American”?
My bottom line
My message this noontime speaks to imperatives both moral and practical. What sort of people are we? What will be the meaning of my life — and yours? Life moves so swiftly, and can go so suddenly. How are you and I to spend the limited time we have? That is the lifelong test for each of us.
If I come across a tad evangelical this noontime, it is because I am. Even though you and I might toil at the side of the angels, we are not ourselves angelic. People with the passion to do good sometimes should feel pleased with progress, but none of us should ever be satisfied that we have done enough. It will be time to rest when we enter the next world.
None of us will “save” this world. But we can surely “save” many people. Then those we help, upon succeeding themselves, have the opportunity to contribute to better lives in the generations to come.
“Retirement” seems to me a perilous state. What actually would I do? The joy of life is making a difference in others’ lives, and I am not saving my energy for that aforementioned next world. Not long ago I read Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth,” a compellingly painful tale of life a century ago. What I found most compelling is this wisdom from Edith Wharton: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things and happy in small ways.”
Anne Frank, among the most poignant figures in history, wrote this in the years of the Holocaust: “How wonderful it is that nobody needs to wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
That, then, is our opportunity. Let us go forth in that spirit. May God bless our children — all our children — and all of us.