Taylor Batten

Why Florida’s kids are likely to be more successful than North Carolina’s

Ten years ago last month, I wrote a column about Miami businessman Alvah Chapman and how he had attacked the problem of homelessness in that city. Chapman’s remarkable success earned the attention of Charlotte leaders and helped spur more intense conversations and actions to reduce homelessness here.

Now, we have another example of a Miami businessman successfully tackling a crucial issue that Charlotte and North Carolina should learn from and emulate.

David Lawrence was a life-long newspaperman. He had served as editor of the Charlotte Observer and editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, among many jobs. In 1998, at age 56, he told his boss that rather than cutting scores of jobs to fatten the profit margin, he would leave his plum job as publisher of the Miami Herald to … well, he wasn’t sure what, but perhaps something to do with early childhood education.

To make a long story short, a wealthy Miami businessman and his wife quickly formed an early childhood foundation for Lawrence to lead. After making other gains for children, Lawrence set his eyes on a much bigger prize: a constitutional amendment providing free, high-quality prekindergarten to every 4-year-old in Florida.

He enlisted then-Miami Mayor Alex Penelas, who raised $1.8 million for a petition drive and for a campaign backing the amendment. It passed with 59 percent of the vote, making Florida one of four states that offers free pre-K to all 4-year-olds. More than 70 percent of all Florida 4-year-olds — about 177,000 — are now enrolled in free pre-K.

Since then, Lawrence has led a successful effort to dedicate a portion of Miamians’ property tax to children’s health, development and safety. And he now chairs The Children’s Movement, a nonprofit devoted to the first five years of all of Florida’s children.

Lawrence came to Charlotte last week to talk about his new memoir and how Charlotte and North Carolina could provide universal pre-K to 4-year-olds. One key element stood out:

“The principal leadership needs to come from the private sector,” Lawrence told a crowd at the Foundation for the Carolinas. “Business and the civic community need to be front and center in Charlotte. You need real leadership. You have to have someone who is somewhat evangelical.”

It took Lawrence years to get the Florida Chamber on board, but that organization is now a key supporter. The Chamber and other business groups see early childhood education not as charity but as a workforce development issue. As former Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill said at last week’s event, “No region can long remain rich and dumb.”

North Carolina’s legislature has raised its pre-K budget by about 15 percent in the past two years. And business leaders are starting to raise their volume on the issue. Expansion is part of the North Carolina Chamber’s 2019 legislative agenda. Ingersoll Rand CEO Mike Lamach and National Gypsum CEO Tom Nelson wrote an op-ed for the Observer last month urging greater access to pre-K. SAS CEO Jim Goodnight did the same in the News & Observer.

But have we seen anyone “evangelical” about it? Not yet. North Carolina, it seems, doesn’t even have ambitions of matching Florida’s universal pre-K. Only those with low enough incomes are eligible (about half of 4-year-olds) and the state aspires to serve only 75 percent of those, or about 39 percent of all 4-year-olds.

Multiple studies have made clear the benefits of pre-K. North Carolina – with help from business leaders – needs to do much, much better.

tbatten@charlotteobserver.com
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