Chiles' Legacy for the Children Gov. Lawton Chiles' Legacy to the State of Florida Is the Work He Did to Improve the Lives of Its Youth

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TALLAHASSEE -- The death of Gov. Lawton Chiles may help assure that his children's programs will live.

If, as some children's advocates say, Chiles' greatest achievement was making the health of children a matter of state and national concern, his death last month only strengthens that attention.

Not that there was ever much chance programs such as Healthy Start, Healthy Families and Healthy Kids would be hastily dismantled. Chiles had succeeded in making them popular with Republicans as well as Democrats.

"All those programs are pretty established and are working," said House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park.

But the emotion generated by Chiles' Dec. 12 death, just 24 days short of the finish line in his second and final term as governor, could make this an even better year for children than previously expected.

"The things that he cared about -- because of the way he died and because of this outpouring -- I think they just got a lot harder to ignore," said Ed Chiles, one of his sons. His other son, Bud, agreed.

"I think there's certainly a mood in the state among the people, and I think the leadership is definitely attuned to it," Bud Chiles said. "This is something that should continue and can now be propelled in even a more aggressive fashion."

Thrasher said the speedy passage of school readiness legislation, designed to ensure that children are prepared to learn when they enter school, would be a good way to honor the former governor.

The legislation, which would improve education in pre-kindergarten and child care programs, may be named for Chiles, Thrasher said.

"I think it exemplifies the kind of thing he has been interested in," Thrasher said.

Ed Chiles said the family appreciated Thrasher's pledge and noted that Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, was a longtime supporter of children's legislation. He said incoming-governor Jeb Bush, who takes office tomorrow would also help.

Jack Levine, director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth, said the Republicans may even be able to accomplish more than the Democrats by enlisting the support of business in tackling children's problems.

"I think they've got the ability to target private sector sources," Levine said.

One approach Levine suggests is for a portion of the taxes paid by business to be earmarked for children's programs.

He said the business community might be willing to forgo some tax cuts and credits currently being discussed, with the understanding that improving conditions for children would help the economy by creating a more productive work force.

"Where are you going to get a generation of skilled workers unless you do right by kids?" Levine asked.

Levine said Chiles legitimized the issue of helping children as a topic for national discussion, focusing on it with single-minded intensity at a time when few were talking about it.

"A decade ago, we had to beg our way onto agendas," Levine said.

Now, politicians across the spectrum have discovered that it's not only good policy, it's good politics to support children's programs.

Levine said Chiles' focus on children may have stemmed from the premature birth of his grandson Lawton Chiles IV, who weighed little more than a pound.

The boy, now 17, played the guitar and sang at his grandfather's funeral.

Chiles saw his grandson's struggles, but he also saw those of other low-birth-weight babies at the hospital, Levine said.

"He was deeply moved by the fact there were kids in that neonatal care unit that did not have the resources that his grandchild did for a quality life," Levine said.

Bud Chiles said his son's problems certainly were a factor, although Lawton Chiles was interested in the idea of spending money on prevention even before that.

Ed Chiles said his father followed a logical progression in developing programs for children: First he realized the process had to start before children entered schools, then he realized it had to start at birth, and finally he came to realize it had to start even before birth, with prenatal care. …