As a newspaperman for 35 years with a career built around an ability to put thoughts on paper, I am almost at a loss for words.
How is it possible for the children of Florida to be left out in so many ways when funding decisions are made in Tallahassee?
There is simply no denying the real world for our state's children: More than 60 percent of our public school 10th-graders cannot read at grade level. At least 700,000 children don't have even basic health insurance. Ours is a state that will spend $51,000 to incarcerate a juvenile and less than $7,000 for a public school slot. We also live in a state where the governor and every legislative leader would tell you that he or she "loves" children and is eager to do right by them.
Now, as someone who was a paid skeptic for many years, I have to ask: Would a leader who "loves" children slash the state's already underfunded voluntary prekindergarten program? Would a leader who "loves" children cut high-quality mentoring programs by more than 50 percent?
Would a leader who "loves" children ignore the plight of children with special needs, or refuse to help moms and dads who want access to information that would improve their parenting skills?
I am a middle-of-the-road fellow, a registered independent for many years, who believes that the American dream is about every child having a real chance to succeed both in school and in life. The challenges we face as a state are very real, and we have known from the beginning of the legislative session that difficult decisions would need to be made to balance the budget. But a state that is failing to minimally fund programs that can improve the quality of life of Florida's families is a state where children are not a priority.
As chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida, I have met with those in leadership — including the governor twice before his election, both Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, as well as other key legislators — to discuss our five priority issues: health insurance for all children, screening and treatment for children who may have special needs, improving Florida's voluntary pre-K program, high-quality mentoring and high-quality parent skill-building. Every time, I was told, "We are with you."
We have called on our support base — more than 235,000 Floridians from Pensacola to Key West — to reach out to their legislators, demanding more for our children. Thousands have made calls, sent e-mails and attended legislative delegation meetings. But those voices — including the voices of the 15,000 Floridians who attended our Milk Parties in September — have been mostly ignored.
I can promise you this: They may ignore us this session, but they will not be able to ignore us in the future. Florida's children deserve to be the state's highest priority. They clearly are not that now.
That is shortsighted and just wrong.
We shouldn't stand for it.
David Lawrence Jr. is president and co-chair of the Children's Movement of Florida, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation of Miami, and retired publisher of the Miami Herald.