Put Every Child Ahead

Guest: Karen Pittman, Executive Director, Forum for Youth Investment As President Bush begins his second term today, he has an opportunity to set this country on a course of self-healing by starting this next chapter of America’s story, as Pamela Loving suggests, with a question: “What about the Children?” Native American elders check their decisions by reflecting on the impact they will have nine generations out. The rest of us, unfortunately, have difficulty focusing on the children currently in our midst.

What about the children? Is it enough to ask that no child is left behind? As powerful as this mantra has become, especially with the addition of high school tests, it is, on close inspection, a rather passively phrased challenge made even more passive in its transformation from the directive – Leave No Child Behind® – put forth by the Children’s Defense Fund almost a decade ago. But, syntax aside, I would ask whether this challenge is enough to unify the country. As parents of three, I do not recall my husband and I ever being elated that we had simply managed to arrive at our destination with all three children in tow. We might have expected congratulations if, with great personal risk, we had managed to leave no child behind in the fire, the flood, the gang crossfire. We certainly would have extended deep personal thanks if, with great professional effort, a firefighter or rescue worker helped us leave no child behind.

It is time to bring a next generation lens to our decision-making to reinforce the rhetorical commitments we have to children. Is there a compelling reason to put children ahead of tax cuts, especially if those tax cuts disproportionately benefit those whose children will not be left behind and force cuts in community programs, student loans and family supports? Is there a reason not to measure our success by asking whether the lives of those most in need and most at risk have been helped more than the lives of those doing well so that we can not only raise the mean but close the gaps? Is there a reason not to ask policymakers to acknowledge the lesson that middle-class parents know well – that supports cannot stop at 18, that high school success is not the end goal but only the first step towards what is becoming almost a ten-year journey towards the American dream – full employment, own home, own family?

As we heed the President’s challenge to be “citizens, not spectators … building communities of service and a nation of character,” I urge us to understand that that means more than volunteering and values. It means dialogue. We cannot be of service to families and neighborhoods we fear or loathe or simply misunderstand. We cannot put all children ahead if we believe, deep in our hearts, that some – because of their backgrounds or behaviors – are simply not worth the trouble. We cannot be of service to youth if we do not believe they can be of service to us and to themselves. Indeed, have we done so well by our children that we should not consider putting them in charge?

How would we – public officials, business leaders, private taxpayers – make the case for cutting basic services like health insurance, reducing basic supports like community programs, and limiting vital opportunities like college attendance if the judges were not budget makers but young people? Would we be as bold in our projections and justifications if the casualties not only had faces but voices and facts and questions?

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them..” [Isaiah 11:6, 8-9].

This country has no choice now but to work its way back out of debt, doubt and divisiveness. Our children can help us if we let them. We, as a country do not have the strength to be trusted to make decisions that affect them without their wisdom, oversight and leadership. They have the resolve to take risks and seek results. They have the character to do what is right.

Let the dialogue begin – in red counties and blue. Don’t just focus on leaving no child behind. Put the children ahead. Let the children lead.

Karen Pittman is the executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are "Ready by 21 — ready for work, college and life.™"