The gathering at All Saints Early Learning Center in Jacksonville last Thursday might have been mistaken for the kickoff to an Easter Egg hunt. Babies, preschoolers, and older siblings bounced along to Pharell Williams’ “Happy,” as they climbed on furniture and played hide-and-seek in their familiar parish hall.
For former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, the ambience made her feel “right at home.” Clinton’s discussion jumped easily from Kibo, the classroom robot, to parental leave policy, to “Chugga Chugga Choo Choo” (her daughter Charlotte’s favorite book,) to Medicaid expansion.
The early-education link to good health is not lost on Jacksonville’s business and nonprofit communities. Florida Blue Insurance executive Susan Towler wrote in a letter published in the Times Union on the day of Clinton’s visit: “…early childhood education is an important prevention measure to improve long-term health outcomes.”
It’s a theme that the Clinton Foundation’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative hammers home in its policy paper on the subject.
There’s more stress and conflict in the lives of American families raising children, the report says, than in the lives of families in other industrialized countries. And a lot of that stress has to do with inflexible workplace policies.
In answer to an ER physician’s question about parental leave, Clinton pivoted deftly to the need to “finish the work of the Affordable Care Act” before describing how a pregnant Hillary created a maternity leave policy — first for her own employer, and later for Arkansas state workers.
Clinton then shifted gears to answer 8-year-old Aiden’s question about living in the White House. It was both “extraordinary and ordinary,” she told the boy, crediting her famous parents with always “talking to me about the world around us,” taking her seriously, and giving her small, concrete ways to help improve the planet, like recycling.
Chelsea recommended to the parents that they buy “50 Simple Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth,” emphasizing the importance of validating their children for “doing something real.”
The 36-year-old married mother has been “doing something real” since she was a preschooler herself. She accompanied her father, former President Bill Clinton, on his gubernatorial campaign throughout Arkansas at the tender age of 2. The Stanford, Oxford and Columbia graduate has grown up to speak fluent public policy, and she doesn’t shy away from reporters who push.
“A president has to work with states,” Clinton told one reporter after the event. She advocated “high-quality” early childhood education and the need to “incentivize” state governments to fund it.
And she was frank about Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s abysmal record on education. “Your governor has cut education,” she told the crowd. This year’s per pupil expenditure, in fact, takes Florida back below 2007 levels.
Starving public schools in favor of funding privatized alternatives has become commonplace for Florida, largely at the behest of another First Offspring who wanted to be president. Never mind that when it comes to improving outcomes for the most vulnerable children, the public-private distinction does not make a difference. Neither does the reform-crowd’s high-stakes testing craze.
The “pendulum has swung too far in terms of testing,” Clinton told reporters gathered in the tiny choir room at the back of the church’s parish hall. One thing that makes a difference for children in economically marginalized neighborhoods, she said, is money that helps even out intractable disparities. Hillary Clinton believes that the U.S. Department of Education has the authority to deliver funds directly to districts that struggle with impoverished schools, the younger Clinton said. Her mother wants to ensure that public schools have the counselors and nurses to provide students with quality wrap-around services in order to “free teachers to teach.”
The nation needs to make a “cultural shift” to get back to “respecting teachers,” Clinton said. That includes, she emphasized, restoring teacher discretion in the classroom.
As Jeb Bush-brand privatization and high-stakes testing continue in Florida, teachers and parents will no doubt welcome the words of the soft-spoken pregnant mother.
After all, she is at once the curly-headed 12-year-old we all met in 1992, and the poised, eloquent purveyor of a much bigger legacy.
Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.