Children are our future. Children don’t vote. Children don’t have lobbyists.
All true. All clichés. None taken seriously enough.
The science is clear. Ninety percent of a child’s cognitive abilities is determined before he or she even steps foot into a kindergarten classroom. Education begins long before age 5. Public education reform and meaningful workforce development must begin long before the seventh, 10th or 11th grades.
As a father of two and someone who has spent a significant amount of time in childcare centers across Florida, I have seen just how impressively ahead — or disastrously behind — a child can be by age 5. So, where is Tallahassee on this issue?
To be either upset or elated about what came to pass for children this past legislative session wouldn’t tell you much. Progress in Florida (and America) most often is achieved by incremental change. Building upon a foundation — brick by brick — and after 10, 15, 20 years, one ends up in a house that, heretofore, did not exist. But when the consequences of incremental change are that children — year by year — are entering a public-school system for which they’re not ready, our insistence should be for transformational change.
So, how do we get from incremental to transformative?
For starters, Florida must continue to increase funding for its School Readiness and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK) programs. This year’s increase of $5 million for subsidized childcare will mean more children can attend preschool, but let us not forget the more than 55,000 children who will remain on lists just waiting for a slot. VPK, one of just three universal pre-K programs in the country, received no increase in funding, keeping the per-student-allocation at just $2,437. (This is $63 less than what was spent per child in 2005.) Funding leads to both access and quality — both essential to helping all children be ready for kindergarten.
Next, with so much attention focused on healthcare coverage, we must acknowledge the reality that hundreds of thousands of Florida’s children have no health insurance — and, hence, no real relationship with a pediatrician. This year, 25,000 of those children — the children of lawfully residing immigrants — could have received coverage through legislation that would have extended state-supported KidCare. Unfortunately, the legislation stalled, leaving thousands of children and families with the ER as their only option. The Children’s Movement seeks to ensure that every child in Florida has a relationship with a pediatrician, alleviating the reliance on costly emergency rooms. Inaction only ensures these children will remain without access to high-quality preventative pediatric healthcare (something we should want for all our children).
Finally, we must find smarter ways to support moms and dads, as sound parenting choices play a critical role in a child’s early years. One way The Children’s Movement has worked to expand parents’ access to information and resources is through the creation of “Help Me Grow,” a phone line and website available in multiple languages through which trained counselors provide information about child development — and personally connect parents and guardians with local resources. Currently available in 21 Florida counties, this approach should be available to parents in all 67 counties — and the next legislative session could make it so.
Two of our most significant leaders in early learning and children’s health access are Miami-Dade Reps. Erik Fresen and Jose Felix Diaz, both of whom have pushed for increased funding for early education and health insurance.
But we need more folks pushing. Too often these priorities are overshadowed by higher-profile (and, in many cases, more political) issues, while research shows that investing in our children from an early age yields a direct, measurable impact on development and educational performance later in life. The real cost of failing to make adequate investments is a childhood squandered.
None of us can afford that.
Vance Aloupis is the state director of The Children’s Movement of Florida, the state’s largest nonprofit voice for early childhood issues.