February 5, 2012

Like Gov. Chiles, we should champion children's issues


As the 17th Annual Children’s Week draws to a close, Florida’s failing grades on children’s quality of life should be a call-to-arms for the state’s political class—especially Gov. Rick Scott.

Among states, Florida ranks 49th in the number of children with health insurance. The state is tied for last in prekindergarten quality and 46th in prekindergarten investment.

The crisis in afterschool programs is staggering; Florida ranks 40th in percent of children unsupervised after school.

At 23.5 percent, Florida has one of the highest child poverty rates; only 15 states plus Washington, DC rank worse.

Judging states based on a variety of national indicators, the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count program ranked Florida 36th overall in 2011.

Gov. Scott should consult Lawton Chiles’ gubernatorial legacy for ideas on how to address this crisis.

Chiles’ governorship, from 1990 to 1998, provides a blueprint for how the state can partner with families to care for Florida’s children.

By the time Chiles rose to the governorship, after three terms in the U.S. Senate, he had concluded that early childhood heath care was the key to successful social reform.

“He was determined that this was the way to get to these intractable social conditions,” explained his wife Rhea, who collaborated with Gov. Chiles on many children’s initiatives, “that there was no other way but this was the one string to pull out of the snarl—if you got to children soon enough, early enough…you could eventually improve the crop. If you prepare the seed crop, you could eventually grow a better product.”

A small front-end investment in children, according to the Chiles philosophy, would pay dividends down the line in lower crime, better education, high incomes, and a balanced budget.

Chiles was adamant that once children became teenagers and young adults, the opportunity for government to facilitate their development was gone.

The first five years of a child’s development were the most crucial in his estimation. “At birth,” the governor said, “the brain has about 100 billion neurons. By age 1, that figure explodes to 1,000 trillion. Talking to children, showing them games, even playing classical music to them during these first years can make a difference of 20 IQ points—an astounding implication for the state as it struggles to provide good childcare for mothers who are leaving welfare for work.”

Chiles’ signature children’s initiatives, especially Healthy Kids and Healthy Start, paid quick dividends. His policies reduced Florida infant mortality rate, expanded health insurance access, and raised the children’s immunization rate.

Today, Florida can benefit from this wisdom. It must repair society at the source.

To address its worst problems—high unemployment, high foreclosure rates, and poor health care access—the state must once again become a healthy place to raise a child.

As the Legislature debates the budget, Gov. Scott should fight for investments in Healthy Start, Healthy Kids, afterschool mentoring programs, and voluntary pre-kindergarten.

Such advocacy would be a reversal of his approach to his first budget.

But the governor’s new stance on K-12 education funding proves he has the ability to change course on major public policy. His call for freezing tuition at state colleges and universities adds credibility to his overhaul.

He justified his resistance to tuition hikes by citing his commitment to cutting cost in hard times.

Florida will save money in the long-term if it makes new investments now in children at their earliest stage of development.

“First base is our children,” said Lawton Chiles. “The answer to all of our pressing problems begins with the child.”

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