ColumnistsMarian Wright EdelmanOp-EdOpinion

Child Watch: Improving the Odds for America’s Children

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By Marian Wright Edelman

NNPA Columnist

 

“. . . We see repeated efforts in Congress in recent years to take resources away from poor and middle-class children and families, like food stamps and tax credits and education funding and access to affordable health care, and give even more to the wealthy and powerful. Bipartisanship has taken a severe beating in recent years, as has the willingness of Congress to enact or support policies driven by evidence-based research that help children and families and our country as a whole.”

–Congressman George Miller, Foreword, Improving the Odds for America’s Children

More than 40 years ago, the earliest planning for what would become the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) took place at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. CDF began in 1973 in a Harvard University-owned clapboard house. Our beginning was bolstered by a two-volume publication of the Harvard Educational Review in 1973 and 1974 among whose top editors were CDF staff, many of them graduates of or students at Harvard’s education and law schools. Another young staff attorney, Hillary Rodham, in her first job after law school, contributed an article on the “Rights of Children.”

At the same time, CDF staff knocked on doors to look for children out of school in Massachusetts and all across America. A local group, Massachusetts Advocacy, had issued a report on Children Out of School in Boston and we wondered whether this was a statewide or national problem. After knocking on many thousands of doors in census tracts across our country, CDF documented it was a national problem with at least 2 million children out of school, including 750,000 the census said were between 7-13 years old but did not tell us who they were. We found many were children with disabilities. Other children were pushed out by discipline policies, language, and the inability to afford school fees.

Children Out of School in America became our first report in 1974. We followed it up by organizing with parents at the local level and collaborating with national organizations concerned with children with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities and many others to help push Congress to enact 94-142 – now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – which for the first time gave children with disabilities the right to a free, appropriate public education. CDF’s first report led to publication of School Suspensions: Are They Helping Children describing many of the practices we are still combating today with school discipline policies that suspend children for a wide range of nonviolent offenses include truancy and subjective offenses like disruptive behavior.

After 40 years we are now blessed with a new indispensable evidence-based book from Harvard Education Press—Improving the Odds for America’s Children: Future Directions in Policy and Practice. Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College and former Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was the driving force behind this volume that she co-edited with Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Laurie B. Forcier.

Each chapter suggests a prominent pathway for moving forward to level the playing field and improve the odds for children. The volume starts with prenatal and infant health and development, emphasizing parent and caregiver support in a child’s earliest years, moves through the school years and adolescence, and addresses the special needs of the most vulnerable youth involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Common threads essential to sound policy and practice emerge quickly, including the impact of poverty and inequality on children’s well-being. Unifying refrains include the need to bring multiple supports together to seek change for children and families; the need for more intensive supports for children and parents with special health and mental health needs; recognition of the harm done to children by withholding help to children and adults who are not citizens nor legally present in the U.S.; and the call to pay attention to the well-being of parents and caregivers and all those who care for children. The book reinforces the importance of never giving up on a child.

This second decade of the twenty-first century is a crucial one for the children’s movement and the nation’s future, as poverty and child poverty have resurged in a prolonged recession and jobless “recovery” and with wealth and income inequality at near record levels and achievement gaps among children who are poor and of color unacceptably wide. Our children are in trouble and our nation is in trouble, and we must reset our moral and economic compasses. CDF has been sounding the siren with urgency and persistence over four decades and will not stop until it is heard.

 

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.

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Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF), has been an advocate for disadvantaged Americans for her entire professional life. Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation’s strongest voice for children and families. The Children's Defense Fund’s Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. Mrs. Edelman served on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College which she chaired from 1976 to 1987 and was the first woman elected by alumni as a member of the Yale University Corporation on which she served from 1971 to 1977. She has received over a hundred honorary degrees and many awards including the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Prize, the Heinz Award, and a MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship. In 2000, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement Award for her writings which include: Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change; The Measure of Our Success: A Letter to My Children and Yours; Guide My Feet: Meditations and Prayers on Loving and Working for Children; Stand for Children; Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors; Hold My Hand: Prayers for Building a Movement to Leave No Child Behind; I'm Your Child, God: Prayers for Our Children; I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children; and The Sea Is So Wide and My Boat Is So Small: Charting a Course for the Next Generation.

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