Column: The moral and practical imperative for prioritizing the early years

We spend less than $3,000 a year to educate a child in pre-K, but more than $50,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile.
David Lawrenc
David Lawrenc
Published Feb. 21, 2019

Ask me what makes me optimistic these days, and I will tell you this: One hundred Florida mayors, from big cities to suburbia to small towns, have signed a letter asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to prioritize early childhood as he sets his agenda for Florida's future. These leaders, representing millions of citizens in both blue and red districts, have come together to support greater investment in the state's youngest children.

The 100 mayors represent large population centers — Miami, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Naples, among others — as well as suburban and rural communities from Mount Dora to Pahokee, Gainesville and DeLand. We are particularly appreciative for the participation in this initiative of St. Pete Beach Mayor Alan Johnson, Madeira Beach Mayor Maggi Black, Safety Harbor Mayor Joe Ayoub, New Port Richey Mayor Robert Marlowe and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and for their support of our advocacy on behalf of Florida's youngest citizens.

It is especially significant that 100 mayors with an array of political leanings can agree on any one issue — in this case, the importance of early childhood to Florida's future prosperity. As state legislators come together this spring to agree on Florida's priorities and express them in budgets and agendas, these 100 mayors hope DeSantis and Florida legislators take appropriate action as stewards of Florida's future prosperity and prioritize early childhood when they vote.

Addressing this issue on local and statewide levels is a moral and practical imperative. Beyond what is right, prioritizing Florida's children's early lives is also the most practical, effective and efficient solution to numerous challenges faced by our state. More than 325,000 Florida children do not have health insurance. We spend less than $3,000 a year to educate a child in pre-K, but more than $50,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile. These 100 mayors want DeSantis to adopt a preventive (rather than reactive) approach to state budgeting. This would save lives — and tax dollars.

Were all children cared for and sheltered from damaging stressors in the early years, they would have a stronger start at leading a self-sufficient life of service to society, and Florida would be an even better place to live and work. We know from the national research that early investment in young children provides greater prosperity for future generations. For every $1 spent on early learning initiatives, at least $8 are returned to society in the form of fewer high school dropouts, fewer incarcerated individuals, and higher earnings.

Thank you, governor, for all you can do.

David Lawrence Jr. chairs the Children's Movement of Florida and is the retired publisher of the Miami Herald. His autobiography, "A Dedicated Life," was published last year.