Teach whose children well?

We say we love our children. It's an accepted shibboleth -- a slogan that we all stand by. We are compassionate humans and therefore the notion that we may not, in fact or deed, love our children is contemptuous, even scandalous. But hold on a minute. I didn't say you didn't love your own children. I'll bet you do. I know I love mine -- would do anything for their happiness and well being. But, it's a question I just have to ask. Do we, as a society, as a race, as a species, really love all our children? How about as a state?

Rilya Wilson wasn't well loved. She disappeared from Florida's foster-care system, and nobody noticed for 15 months. For the past 15 years, Florida governors and legislators have been told repeatedly by blue-ribbon panels and various task forces that the state's troubled child-welfare system needed more funding in order to protect the children we say we love. Most recommendations that required significantly higher spending were ignored. But not to worry: Gov. Jeb Bush has appointed another blue-ribbon panel. Is that love?

Meanwhile, the selfsame "education governor" is bragging about the huge amount of new money going to schools next year -- the better to educate our beloved children, who are failing their standardized tests in droves. And yet, when the numbers are crunched, we discover that the $1.1 billion increase for K-12 spending that is being touted by state leaders doesn't factor in inflation, or the influx of new students expected to flood the system next fall, or the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Republican-controlled legislature cut from school districts last year. So, in fact, per capita school funding on the state level is just about holding even with last year's amounts. Tough ... love.

Of course, everything is relative. Those of us who live in the Sunshine State are still part of the richest nation in the history of the world, so our problems, and those of our children, though real enough, pale in comparison with the rest of the planet's human population. According to data supplied by UNICEF's "The State of the World's Children 2002" report, a third of all children suffered from malnutrition during the last decade. Over a billion people continue to live without safe water, and 2.4 billion are without adequate sanitation. More than 100 million children of primary- school age are not in school, and many more receive poor quality education. One out of four children is not immunized against preventable childhood diseases.

What are the children, themselves, saying about all this? Last week, more than 300 young delegates of the Children's Forum, held in conjunction with the United Nations Special Session on Children, drafted a message to the world's leaders and delivered it at the U.N. General Assembly. They called for an end to the worldwide victimization of children -- by war; by poverty and disease (most notably HIV/AIDS); and by political, economic, cultural, religious and environmental discrimination. They decried the lack of quality education and adequate health care. They called for an end to war and violence, elimination of the arms trade and a ban on the use of child soldiers.

The youngsters asked for affordable and accessible lifesaving drugs, medical treatment for all children and educational systems to combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. They demanded the conservation and rescue of natural resources and the cancellation of national debts that yoke them to poverty and impede their progress. They requested equal opportunities and access to quality education that is both free and compulsory, and raised the need for children to be actively involved in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.

Finally, the delegates solicited their adult caretakers to make a world "fit for children," explaining that they are "not the sources of problems, but rather the resources that are needed to solve them"; that they are not "expenses" but "investments"; and that -- until others accept their responsibility to them -- they will continue to fight for their own rights.

The voice of Rilya Wilson is silenced. But even if she could speak, would we listen? Florida's dismal FCAT scores cry out loudly for increased attention to our state's educational system. Is anybody hearing the call? The world's children are begging us to change our ways and make the globe a better place to live. Is it just more juvenile prattle to be ignored at our own peril? We say we love our kids. But do we love our neighbors' kids? How about the kids down the road, across town, on the other side of creation? How much do we really love our children?

It's a question I just had to ask.

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