I am a frustrated Floridian. • We don't have our priorities straight. Somehow, we can figure out how to get almost $3 billion for a bullet train that most Floridians won't be able to use. Somehow, we can get $51,000 every year to house a juvenile in a secure facility. Somehow, we can get $20,000 each year to house an adult prisoner. But we can't get even $7,000 for a public school slot and or even $3,000 for a pre-K slot. • What is wrong with us? Why can we not invest in wiser priorities with a much greater return on investment?
I refer not only to public resources. Private, business and civic leadership and resources are just as vital. During Gov. Jeb Bush's administration, for example, we had a genuine emphasis on model mentoring programs with private investment.
We've backslid since. With vision and energy — private and public — we could have the nation's best-practice mentoring and parent skill-building programs, as well as this country's best examples of high-quality early childhood investment.
But we do not. By every objective standard, Florida — the fourth-largest state in the nation — ranks poorly in measure after measure in how we invest in our youngest, most vulnerable citizens:
• Hundreds of thousands of Florida's children are not covered by health insurance, and have little or no access to ongoing medical care.
• Despite a constitutional amendment that mandates the availability of free, high-quality prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, our state's program does not meet most national standards.
• Special needs — autism, cerebral palsy and so many more — are evident in as many as one in eight children, but Florida's early screening and treatment programs are poorly coordinated, only sporadically available and of inconsistent quality and efficacy.
• Florida regularly ranks in the bottom half of states in child health.
We are neither a very educated state nor an especially healthy one. Leaving Florida this way is a recipe for a competitive debacle in this 21st century global economy.
Right now, right here in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, more than 68,000 children do not have health insurance. About one of every four public school third-grade students in these two counties cannot read with even minimum proficiency. Worse, by the time they get to 10th grade, 60 percent of public school students cannot read at grade level. Meanwhile, more than 12,000 juveniles were detained by authorities in Pinellas and Hillsborough in 2008.
With all this in mind and after 20 months of research and planning, we have launched the citizen-led, nonpartisan Children's Movement of Florida.
Overseen by a 27-member statewide steering committee of influential Floridians and by 15 local steering committees of children's advocates and other leaders, the movement is well-funded, well-organized and driven by this objective:
To educate political, business and civic leaders — and all Floridians — about the urgent need to improve the way we care for our children, making the well-being and education of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens Florida's highest priority.
All our funding comes from private resources, mostly from individual Floridians. Our mission is not about advocating higher or new statewide taxes. It is about working in coming years to ensure that all of Florida's children are the No. 1 priority in our state's spending and investment. The very future of our state — including the safety and security of all of us — depends on this.
As part of this movement, "Milk Party" rallies will be held at 15 locations throughout Florida from Pensacola to Key West next month, including planned stops of "The Children's Express" bus — and major events — in St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The magnitude of these rallies and the passion of the thousands of Floridians who attend can show our elected leaders that we have the power to obtain for Florida's children the resources they require and deserve.
Our children need us.
David Lawrence Jr. is president and co-chair of the Children's Movement of Florida (www.childrensmovementflorida.org), president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation of Miami, University Scholar for early childhood development and readiness at the University of Florida, and retired publisher of the Miami Herald.