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MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Improving the Odds for America's Children

Marian Wright Edelman | 4/16/2014, 3 p.m.
Our children are in trouble and our nation is in trouble, and we must reset our moral and economic compasses.
Marian Wright Edelman (Courtesy of childrensdefense.org)

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.