Florida's most precious resource is its children, but by virtually any measure the state is failing them. High infant mortality. High rates of child abuse. Some 800,000 children without health insurance coverage. A quarter of high school students leaving school without a diploma. A state ranking near the bottom in per pupil spending on education.
The new Children's Movement of Florida, which launched a smart and focused campaign this month, is determined to reorder Florida's priorities and move children's needs to the top of the list. Floridians who have lamented the appalling state of children's services now can join a forceful chorus calling for change.
For a citizen-led campaign, this one has real fire power. It is chaired by David Lawrence Jr., the former publisher of the Miami Herald and president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and Roberto Martinez, former U.S. attorney for South Florida and a member of the state Board of Education. They co-chair a bipartisan 27-member steering committee that includes some of the best-known names in Florida politics, education and business.
"What we seek to be … is a powerful instrument," Lawrence said this week before leading hundreds of supporters at a so-called "Milk Party" rally in Pinellas Park, one of 17 being held around the state. Lawrence and others have labored behind the scenes for 20 months to design a bipartisan, privately funded campaign that would have real impact. They have raised more than $1 million so far and recruited powerful advocates. They tested their campaign strategy in Palm Beach County in April and May, with polls afterward showing they increased people's understanding of the plight of Florida children and so spurred them to support change.
The campaign is focused on five initiatives that would offer a more promising future for children: better access to good health care, earlier screening and treatment of children with special needs, a higher quality pre-kindergarten program for all children, mentoring programs and parental education and support.
Those goals won't be accomplished without a major infusion of tax dollars. Lawrence's group is not advocating tax increases. Instead, it will pressure legislators to acknowledge the desperate needs of children and adjust the state's spending priorities. They expect to start modestly, with specific suggestions that would be significant in impact but relatively inexpensive.
Access to health care, a higher quality pre-K program and widely available parent education programs would save tax dollars in the long run and help children live happier, more productive lives. It would make Florida more attractive to families and business. The Children's Movement is right. What could be more important?