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Q&A: Early childhood education, Common Core and America’s future

  • Written by Khalil Abdullah-New America Media
  • Published in National
commoncore 600David Lawrence Jr. arrived in Miami in 1989 as an experienced newspaper journalist and continued his stellar career for another decade at the Miami Herald. He then retired to devote himself to improving the childhood years of America’s children. He chairs the Children’s Movement of Florida, a statewide, non-partisan, advocacy organization that focuses on issues critical to the early stages of life. In an interview, which has been edited, with NAM editor Khalil Abdullah, Lawrence makes the case for why Floridians should adopt the Common Core state standards.
 
What is your stance on Common Core?
 
I support Common Core totally. No question in my mind that if we are going to compete internationally as a country, we need national standards. States will continue to play the primary role in achieving this. Florida has had, as so many other states, a dust up over what’s happening here with Common Core. In Florida, we say Florida Standards. Our state has tinkered a bit  with the Common Core State Standards, but I think they’re very closely aligned.
Is the controversy around Common Core driven by ideology?
 
Some people on the significant right have argued, “My gosh, this is a loss of freedoms.” I don’t believe that for a second. I see no evidence of it whatsoever, and frankly, we’re going to lose our freedom if we become uncompetitive as a country.
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One of the saving graces in Florida has been Jeb Bush, the former governor, a Republican, who has strongly supported Common Core and, I think, who has served as cover for a lot of other people, particularly Republicans [to support it also].
 
How does Common Core dovetail with your work on early childhood issues?
 
My own work is devoted to building a movement, and a movement about early childhood can only be about everyone’s child. Common Core is about all children. And I here would quote former President George W. Bush, who talked about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I think that does exist in many ways in America. We need to see every child’s potential and give every child the fullest potential to succeed in school and in life. Common Core is about that.
 
My work really focuses on pre-natal to age eight, the early childhood years. [But] we need to see life and school as a continuum. High-stakes testing begins in third grade in this country, state by state. The work we do in early childhood needs to connect with that. I’m not talking about testing, high-stakes testing for three-year-olds, or five-year-olds, or six-year-olds, for that matter. I am talking about work that would help children be ready to succeed in all ways. Children need to grow not only physically and intellectually, but also socially and emotionally, behaviorally and developmentally. It all connects.
 
Can you reflect on some steps that have strengthened this movement for Florida’s children?
 
I helped lead an effort in 2002 to pass a constitutional amendment that provides free pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds in Florida – not mandatory, but voluntary. And now 175,000 four-year-olds are in the program, which is more than 70 percent of those in the state.
 
Corporations have long been pressing states to focus on improving public education. Are we finally nearing the apex of public awareness about investing in this area?
 
There have been many reports and moments along this continuum. For instance, we had the Committee for Economic Development report, the Carnegie Commission Report on Higher Education; we had the moment of awareness about human brain development. In Florida, the Florida Chamber Foundation, which is a very key business group, announced an early childhood business alliance in April. That’s a very significant development.
 
Having said all that, we’re still fairly nascent in having people understand this issue, but the President, in his last two State of the Union messages, talked about [it]. Though nothing seems to be moving in Congress, the action, in any event, is going to be more in the states. What I most want is the President to continue to use his bully pulpit.
 
Business people complain frequently, as you’ve just noted, about the quality of graduates, little realizing it isn’t really about fixing college, or the eleventh grade, or the seventh grade. It’s about investing early for the highest return on investment. If we understand that, we can make real progress.
 
How do you anticipate this agenda moving forward?
 
I work with wonderful young people who will be involved with this issue long after my own lifetime. The state director of the Children’s Movement of Florida is 30 years old. His number two is 35 years old. Both are lawyers who could be out there making more money, but have decided, “Hey, I want to devote more of my life to making a difference in the future of this country.”
 
We have 17 regional committees around Florida; we have more than 100,000 followers of the Children’s Movement of Florida. Hard to know where you are in history when you are living it or working it. So, I can’t tell you exactly where we are, but we now have attentiveness on this issue of a degree we’ve never had before.
 
For instance, Gov. Rick Scott made it a big point of speaking out on this issue on several occasions, including at a major forum we had with the Florida Chamber, Florida Tax Watch, and the Florida Council of 100. I need to work with people in both parties and no party. This is about the competitive future of Florida and the future of children.
 
Why do you think Florida’s success with early childhood development and the Common Core could be indicative of America’s future?
 
Florida, with 19 million people, is now the fourth largest state and, within a few years, will easily become the third largest in the Union. We are a state that has always been characterized by change, and, if anything, change is accelerating.
 
Where I live, Miami-Dade County is larger than 16 states in the Union. Twenty percent of the community is African American or black … we have many tens of thousands of black residents who are not African American and who may look at things, including racism, in a somewhat different way.
 
And people would say, ‘Yes, I know 65 percent of the population is Hispanic, and I know a lot of Cubans live here,’ but the Cuban American population is only half the Hispanic population. We have enormous populations of Columbians, Nicaraguans, Dominicans – the list goes on and on.
 
We live in a country where there are now more children of color born than otherwise. By the end of this decade there will more children of color, period. By the middle of this century, what we now call ‘minorities’ will be in the majority. Miami could serve as a place where we get with the future; we learn fully how to respect our differences and celebrate what we have in common. I think that’s entirely possible.

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