Just last month, Pinellas County hosted a large rally for the Florida Children's Movement, a bipartisan group of parents, teachers, military leaders, business leaders and other concerned citizens fed up with Florida's horrific national standing in how we care for our children. As I sat with more than 1,300 parents, grandparents, children and many other Pinellas County friends and neighbors, listening to Movement organizer David Lawrence plead with us to make children a priority, I wondered: What drew so many children and families to the event at Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park? And what, in the midst of a remarkably contentious election cycle, was it that brought nearly 15,000 people statewide together?
I believe David Lawrence is correct. As a state, we have lost sight of our single greatest responsibility: our children. Florida ranks among the worst states in the nation on virtually every measure of how we care for our children. The litany of legislative cuts over the past decade to services and supports for pregnant women and young children, and the impact these "budgetary" decisions have had on children and families, is astonishing. They have been chronicled in a compelling report entitled "Investing in Florida's Children: Good Policy, Smart Economics" assembled by researchers at Florida State University. The data are almost beyond belief.
Here are some of the report's findings:
• Florida ranks 47th in the percentage of pregnant women receiving prenatal care in the first trimester, despite the critical importance of good prenatal care for the gestation and delivery of healthy infants.
• We are the ninth-worst in the country in child abuse deaths. Nonetheless, the 2010 Florida Legislature cut our state's Healthy Families program, which effectively prevents child abuse before it occurs.
• Average wages of $9 per hour without benefits contributes to child care staff turnover rates of 30 to 40 percent.
• Florida serves less than 25 percent of infants and toddlers eligible for federally sponsored Early Head Start, a comprehensive, high-quality program with demonstrated positive outcomes.
• Florida is ranked at the bottom in national spending for prekindergarten. We are the only state to actually decrease funding for pre-K two years in a row.
• In 2009, Florida met only three of the 10 quality pre-K standards established by the National Institute for Early Education Research. This is a decrease from 2008.
The pathetic litany of findings in the report continues. If the state of Florida were a parent, we would not be deemed fit to raise a child.
Of course, children are being raised in Florida, and the results of our collective neglect show up later in sobering ways. In 2009, 30 percent of Florida's fourth-graders did not meet even minimum reading proficiency on the FCAT. Florida is one of only four states where less than two-thirds of ninth graders graduate from high school within four years with a regular diploma.
Of every 100 Florida high school students today, only 76 will ever graduate high school, and only 51 will attend college, and only 32 will earn a B.S. degree within six years. Fully 75 percent of applicants to the U.S. armed forces are ineligible due to failure to graduate from high school, a criminal record or physical fitness issues. Every high school dropout loses a quarter of a million dollars in lifetime earnings, ultimately costing the taxpayer up to $288,000 in additional costs in health care, public safety and other social programs.
The good news is, we know the solution and where to start. Advances in science have established that 90 percent of a child's brain development has been completed by the age of five. It is time for Floridians to put a stop to the insensitive neglect of our state's most precious and unfettered resource. The first five years of a child's life is the most effective time to influence our society and our work force. Before age five, our children establish the building blocks for thinking, learning and positive social interaction that will affect their individual lives and our community for a lifetime. The future of our state is dependent on every Florida child being healthy, ready to learn and successful in school — for life.
Professor James P. McHale is chair of the Psychology Department and director of the Family Study Center in the College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg.