Marian Wright Edelman, president of the national Children's Defense Fund, had hoped to be out of business by now. But 40 years after she founded her well-respected advocacy group, the need for it is greater than ever.

As Edelman points out, every eight seconds during the school year, a high school student drops out; every 17 seconds, a child is arrested; every 29 seconds, a baby is born into poverty, and every 47 seconds, a child is abused or neglected. Every three hours a child or teenager is killed by a firearm, and every 5.5 hours a child dies because of abuse or neglect.

The longtime children's champion was in Minneapolis on Monday as the keynote speaker for the 23rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, sponsored by the United Negro College Fund and the General Mills Foundation. In his "I Have a Dream'' speech, King referred to civil rights as the "fierce urgency of now.''

Addressing the theme "Education: The fierce urgency of now,'' Edelman eloquently made the case for why investing in children can reverse some of those awful statistics.

She cited a recent study that found America loses half a trillion dollars in productivity each year because so many children and teens are not well cared for. "We cannot afford NOT to invest in our children," she said.

Her organization's policy priorities include ending child poverty, providing high-quality early childhood care and all-day kindergarten, and ensuring that every child can read at grade level by fourth grade.

The group's "Be careful what you cut'' drive outlines the consequences of reducing or eliminating funding for programs that help kids. For example, ending early education spending increases the chances that a child will go to prison by up to 39 percent, while paying for prison later costs taxpayers three times more than a quality preschool experience.

“The cradle-to-prison pipeline… is becoming the new American apartheid ,” Edelman said. “We spend 2 and a half times more for prisons than for education... Yes, we must invest now, invest now with urgency.”

A major part of caring for children is educating them. Families, business, nonprofits and communities must work together to narrow learning disparities. And they must hold government accountable to do the right things for children and teenagers.

If those efforts come together, Edelman's organization won't have to sound the same alarms for 40 more years.


Denise Johnson is a Star Tribune editorial writer.