Politics and Social Justice Archive

Pushing Forward With Paid Leave, Workplace Flexibility for All

Monday, October 8th, 2012

"Five of us were meeting for lunch and reminiscing about the women's movement. 'I was never one of those angry women,' one said. 'I'm still angry,' I blurted. My reaction surprised both me and my friends. Where did that come from? A source I hadn't tapped before. Upon reflection, I realized that I'm not angry enough to carry a placard down hot macadam streets in front of the nation's Capitol like I did in my thirties when I marched for women's rights. But now in my seventies, I'm still dissatisfied with the status quo… Why the anger, what did I expect?

"I expected that by the year 2012, grandmothers like myself would be able to tell their grandchildren how life used to be 'long ago' when families used to have to figure out for themselves how to be both wage earners and care givers." — Excerpt from The New Feminist Agenda, Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family, Madeleine M. Kunin, Chelsea Green Publishing.pp 1-2.

When I held a conference on onsite childcare in the workplace during my first term as Governor of Vermont in 1986, I expected that most employers would recognize that this was a great idea, both for their workers and their bottom line. When I established a grant program for early childhood education, I expected there would surely be a national program by now.

And when the unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act was signed by President Bill Clinton on Feb. 5, 1993, I expected that paid family and medical leave would soon come about.

None of that happened. The need for sensible family/work policies is greater today than ever, as more middle class families are struggling with work/life balance, and with balancing their household budgets.

Working moms, and increasingly working dads don't want a government handout, but they do need a hand up.

What is at the top of the list? The moms I have spoken with put workplace flexibility at the top of the list. Some family-friendly employers provide workplace flexibility, enabling employees to work at home or work shorter weeks or days.

But flexibility depends largely on what kind of a boss you have. In England and Australia, there is a law called "the right to request flexibility" which applies to everyone. An employee can request flexibility but it is not automatically granted. Both parties have to negotiate a solution, and if none is found, it is settled by a tribunal. Employers have found that the law works for them because it allows them to retain good workers.

Paid family and medical leave is next on the list. Present law, while helpful, is not the answer for a new mother who is forced to either go back to work right after birth, or take the leave, and give up her paycheck for six weeks. Most families simply can't afford to do that. It's hard to believe, but only three countries in the world do not have some form of paid maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and the United States of America.

The same story applies to paid sick days. Connecticut recently passed a limited paid sick days law for service workers in large companies. The winning slogan stated by the governor was, "I don't want someone to sneeze in my salad." Paid sick days are both a family/work issue and a public health concern.

Child care is on every young family's list — where to find quality care and how to pay for it. Again, most of the globe is ahead of us. It is high time for a national child care and early education policy, paid for on a sliding scale, to enable all children to get off to a good start. As a result of neuroscience studies we know that those early years are critical to a child's development. We also know that high quality childcare can help break the cycle of poverty.

One consequence of our lack of these policies is that the United States has the highest child poverty rate of any developed country — about 22 percent. The price we will pay for neglecting of the needs of these children will far outpace the cost of investing in their future.

Why has change been so molasses slow? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other big business interests have fought vigorously against these policies, but regardless of their opposition, two states now have paid leave laws — California and New Jersey. It can be done. Several states are providing early childhood education and all day kindergarten — despite tight budgets — because they know that this is the best place to put their scarce dollars.

How can we speed up the process of putting workplace flexibility, paid family and medical leave, childcare and early childhood education on the agenda of both political parties? We have to amplify our voices and make our demands clear. A useful strategy is to form new and powerful coalitions. Policies that are good for families with young children are also good for the elderly the disabled — and for that potentially enormous constituency — men.

These policies are no longer just "women's issues." They are working family issues — which means most of America.

We also have to play catch-up in electing more women to public office. Female membership in the Congress is 17 percent, which places us in 69th place among 168 countries. Yes, many men will support these issues, but women have the benefit of having experienced the struggles to raise their children while earning a paycheck. They have to have a seat at the table where their stories can be told.

In this election season, the most immediate step for women to take is to exercise the right to vote. Neither party has gone far enough in addressing these needs, but there is a clear distinction between the two, as reflected in the Paul Ryan budget. Instead of expanding programs like Head Start child care block grants and food stamps, they are cutting back.

Both parties are courting women's votes. Why? Because they know that women are very likely to determine the outcome of this election. That outcome will influence whether we move forward on family/work policies, or are pushed back.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

The Business Case for Workplace Flexibility: How Employers and Employees Can "Have it All"

Monday, August 27th, 2012

"Job Killer." Those are the two words you are most likely to hear uttered by most American CEOs when confronted with proposals to enact family-friendly work policies.

This was true in the battles for earned sick days, paid maternity leave, increases in the minimum wage, and even workplace flexibility. Sure, there are exceptions. In fact, the exceptions are the employers who are doing well — in fact better than their competitors — by doing good for their employees.

If we are to create a new agenda for family/work policies, employers and employees have to take a seat at the same table and recognize their mutual gains. Working families have a better chance to "have it all" — a job and a family — in a family friendly workplace. Likewise, businesses are better positioned "to have it all" — profitability and worker loyalty when they can create a family friendly workplace.

It's become unrealistic to expect employers to provide workplace flexibility because of a belief in gender equality or because bosses want to be nice to workers.  Employers believe, and rightly so, that it is their job to make money.  The challenge facing advocates for fair family/work policies is to provide evidence that these policies are money makers; they can boost the bottom line over the long term.  It's not as tough a sale as one might think.

Workplace flexibility can be a strategic business tool for managing today's workforce, rather than an expensive new benefit.  The benefits most often accrue to both employees and employers because the most competitive commodity for any business today is not how many hours are worked, but how much skill and knowledge each worker brings to the task.  Evidence has accumulated that the ability to attract and retain talent increases profits and reduces costs thereby, increasing shareholder confidence.

Savings can be substantial. James Wall, recently retired vice president for diversity and human resources at Deloitte, became alarmed when the company's investment in recruiting and training women evaporated because of the leaky pipeline. Looking at a list of 100 candidates for partnership he found only seven women. After implementing a multi-year program to change the culture about family/work policies, the number of women eligible for partnership rose to 41.  He told me:  "The cost of turnover in a knowledge-intensive business is somewhere between three and five times the salary of the person at the point they leave." He estimated that a one percent drop in turnover would result in a $1 million reduction in costs. "If you dropped it five percent, you were talking real money. When we ran these calculations to our partners who were serious doubters and even they said, maybe I need to pay closer attention, there's something there."

What is true for Deloitte's highly skilled workforce is also be true for many entry-level employees when employers find that without further investment in training, these workers lack the skills to do rudimentary work.  A skilled worker, regardless of the job description, remains a treasure.

If the benefits of workplace flexibility options have already been proven, why aren't more businesses providing them? Partly, it's a mindset. For one thing, we are stuck in a sentimental Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post portrait of the American family which portrays father walking out the door, briefcase in hand, while mother, wearing a pinafore, waves good-bye from the doorway, with one perfect child at either side.  That's the way it was, and that's the way work remains, with the assumption that there is one breadwinner taking care of the family. He can work long hours, not worry about the home front, because mother is there to take care of the children and Grandma and bake apple pie.

The family structure has changed dramatically since those seemingly perfect days, because in 80 percent of today's families, both mom and dad go off to work, or a single mom, holding the hand of the toddler, walks out the door.   The workplace, however, has hardly budged from its traditional configuration.

For one thing, we have to modify our belief that face-time and the number of hours worked are essential to productivity.   To make flexibility work, it is not only necessary to change our attitude about who is a good worker and who is not, but we have to train managers at all levels to recognize the difference between the number of hours worked and the quality of work produced.

More analysis, tailored to each individual business enterprise, will be needed, but we need not wait to affirm what common sense already tells us.  A worker who knows that her or his employer understands that she has responsibilities outside of the workplace and will make accommodations to help the employee meet them, will be eternally grateful.  That gratitude will take the form of increased loyalty and reduced turnover, with a payback in increased productivity. The United States is an outlier when it comes to family-friendly policies.  For example, out of 178 countries, the U.S. is one of three that does not offer some form of paid maternity leave. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland.

We know that the opportunity to have workplace flexibility is the number one issue for working women, from women in top management positions, to hourly workers.  Increasingly the call for greater flexibility is echoed by men as they assume a greater share of taking care of the children, the elderly, as well as, albeit only some of, the shopping, the cooking, and the cleaning and dentist appointments.

The ultimate benefit of flexibility for an employee is to have some control over one's life.  When Anne-Marie Slaughter left the number three post at the State Department because of her need to spend time with her son going through a difficult adolescence, she didn't go back to being a professor at Princeton to put an apron on.  She went back to a demanding position — teaching a full course-load, writing books, traveling, speaking, and appearing on television. But she had what she wanted most, the ability to say "no" when necessary, the ability "to work things out" when there was a conflict between her family and her work.  Women who do not have the power to negotiate on their own to get the same flexibility that Prof. Slaughter has, will continue to need understanding bosses, and most importantly, work in a culture that sees flexibility not as a special favor, but as the normal way of doing business.

Flexibility can take many forms, including the scheduling of hours worked including shift and break schedules, the amount of hours worked such as flex time and part time, and the place of work, such as telecommuting.  With the growing sophistication of technology, the possibilities for work place flexibility are endless. Regardless of how flexibility is achieved, at different stages of employee's lives, in different work situations, there is one core value that underlies them all.

There has to be trust between the employer and the employee.  The invention of the time clock, no doubt, was based on a lack of trust.  People, it was assumed, would cheat on how much time they put in. Being fired for being late is not uncommon.

It is time to relieve the tight regulations that many businesses (many of which denounce government regulations) impose on their workers, and begin to look at results. Productivity can no longer be exclusively measured by where one works, how one works, or how long one works. Those countries that succeed in retaining women in the workplace are most likely to continue to grow and prosper, according to the World Economic Forum.  It's simple math.

It's time for a new conversation to begin, not as a shouting match with words like "job killer", but with a sensible dialogue.  The focus must be on the well being of the family as it exists today and on the workplace, as it must become tomorrow. Our shared goal is to enable moms and dads to be both good care givers and good providers and businesses to move towards increased competitiveness and profitability.   If we sit at the same table, we are sure to find some common ground.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

A Cathedral to Democracy

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

The Strafford Town House is commanding. It is easily mistaken for a church because of the  white spire that reaches for the sky.  Set up on a steep hill; the giant structure forces you to look up to it, from the more fittingly modest village common. Now boasting a population of 1,045, what were the inhabitants of Strafford thinking in 1799  when they built this proud structure?

They thought large. They dreamed big.

One recent night some 150 people walked up the hill to enter the Town House. One woman, clinging to crutches under each arm pit and wearing a cloth handbag attached by a string around her neck, was huffing and puffing as she walked in, a bit late, looking for a seat.

I offered my help, wanting to acknowledge her achievement. I knew she would refuse, which she did, gesturing towards a seat on the aisle, in the back row, which she could reach by herself, thank you.

What brought her there was a candidate's forum. Norman Rockwell would have been delighted to paint the scene. These attentive, eager citizens who filled every row came to see for themselves what the candidates stood for, perhaps how they looked, and of course, what they were going to say. The massive architecture with its high windows and carefully carved wooden details created the aura of a cathedral — a cathedral dedicated to democracy.

The event was not unusual for the political season: some local candidates spoke, but the main attraction was the first debate for the Democratic candidates for Vermont's Attorney General, the 15-year incumbent Bill Sorrell and the challenger, state's attorney TJ Donovan. They headed straight for the issues. No pre-arranged soft balls. The questions were specific and detailed answers were clearly expected.

The scene was as far away from today's politics of vitriol and attack ads as if it were taking place in another century. No spin, no  analysts to tell the audience what had been said. They figured it out for themselves.

Some families brought their children, no doubt to give them a simple lesson on how government should work.

Walking down the hill I felt refreshed, as if all the slime and dirt of today's national campaigns had been washed away by a good rain.

Originally published on The Huffington Post.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

Spring Has Returned to Vermont

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Who could have thought that May would bring us so many hues of green?

We feel refreshed just by slowly gazing at the trees in all their newborn shades. For a brief period, our thoughts can turn away from the bold black headlines of the daily news, and our ears can silence the angry voices that disturb our equilibrium.

It is restorative to rediscover the delicate green leaves that have emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, slowly unfolding themselves in delicate filigree patterns against the blue sky. The heavy evergreens assert themselves on hillsides by both their stately size and their well defined dark clusters.

We learned in kindergarten that by mixing blue and yellow, we create the color green. But which artist played with those paints so happily and endlessly to give us this almost infinite palette of greens?

Layers and layers of green are set one upon the other, sometimes framing fields, a deep brown, freshly tilled and slightly damp soil waiting to be sown.

Sometimes I want to brush against the newborn leaves, gently, carefully, so as not to impede their growth.

The onset of spring follows a familiar pattern; it is a gift of renewal, of rebirth. We have witnessed this miracle ever since our own birth, even before we were conscious of it. Why, then, does the advent of spring still surprise?

Could we have harbored doubts in those gray, sullen days of winter, doubts that it might not return in full bloom?

Were we afraid that perhaps this year, with all the foreboding that accompanies climate change, we would have to confront a modified spriing, one without myriad greens, even one without bird song.

No, not yet. Spring is here, as expected. We need not fear a silent spring, as Rachel Carson warned, when she wrote her book 50 years ago. Thanks to her, birds still alight on tree branches, build their nests of leaves and twigs and sing their songs of procreation.

See if you can spot a robin red breast high up in the branches, more visible in spring than in high summer. Breathe in the sweet exhalations of buds and wildflowers.

Yes, spring has returned to Vermont. Just as we dreamed all winter that it would.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

Why Girls Should Create Video Games

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

Why are video games so violent? The ones I've seen remind me of the 4th of July, with everything exploding, buildings, cars, airplanes, men and women. Kill, kill, and kill for sport and entertainment.

Video games seem to be mostly a boy thing — viewed by young boys and created by big boys. I believe that if more videos games were created by women, the violence in these games — especially against women — would be rapidly toned down.

There's one catch, however. To design these games women have to become computer scientists. Yes, they have to enter a field, which has increasingly been dominated by men, and it's getting worse, not better. While enrollment in math, science and even engineering has been growing for women, computer science is moving the other way. In 1985, 38 percent of computer scientists were women. That figure has plummeted to 17 percent in some years.

A group of Vermont women formed a new networking organization for women in science, math and engineering and finance to encourage more women. A group of Harvard students recently revived a long dormant organization, Women in Computer Sciences. Why?

They discovered that the percentage of women in the field fell from 42 percent in the class of 2013, to 22 percent in the class of 2014.

Why is computer science a good field for women? For one thing, that's where the jobs are, and for another, the pay is better than for many jobs, and finally, it's easier to combine career and family.

But that's not all. Yes, you may get a job at Facebook or Microsoft, but there's more at stake.

"If you completely shut out the entire feminine perspective on the world, you are going to have a different set of products," the president of Harvey Mudd College, Maria Klawe, told Judy Woodruff on the PBS News Hour. The presence of women in computer labs will determine what kind of medical devices get created, what kind of products we buy.

Boys often get attracted to computer science because they like to watch video games. When women begin to create those games, more girls will begin to watch them too, and by the time they start college, they'll be hooked, not only on playing games, but also on a career in computer science. This is how greater gender equality can enrich all of our lives.

Originally published at the Huffington Post.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

Same-sex marriage

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

If anyone still clings to the belief that social change is impossible in this country they have to think again after President Obama's announcement yesterday that he supports the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry.

Yes, support for gay marriage has been growing among young people, but the country remains deeply divided on the question, evidenced by the North Carolina vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that bans both civil unions and marriage.

When I was Governor of Vermont in the 1980's, neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions were on the table. I was applauded by the gay community for initiating an official state liaison with a gay organzation. I also spoke at Vermont's first Gay Pride Day, and received some praise but intense criticism for showing up.

After Civil Unions became law in Vermont, a half a dozen legislators lost their seats because of the "Yea" vote they cast. A storm of opposition followed, with "Take Back Vermont" signs springing up on the side of country roads. After Vermont passed a gay marriage act, over riding a Governor' veto, there was almost no reaction. Within ten years, gay marriage had moved from being on the fringe to moving toward the center–at least in Vermont

My state–once a Republican stronghold is now largely Democratic. We sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that the country is moving in the same direction.

Not so. The 31 states that have passed laws and constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage prove the point.

Many courageous citizens had spoken out in favor of same-sex marriage before it was popular—even in Vermont. But the voice of the President of the United States speaking publicly in favor of same-sex marriage changes the political landscape. He establishes a tone of respect and civility that this country desperately needs in these times of ugly and divisive rhetoric.

Mere months before his re-election will be determined, he has taken the risk of alienating many voters who vehemently disagree with him, even while others will agree. The polls on the question are so close that it is difficult to predict the consequences.

One thing is clear. It took guts to state his position and I applaud him for it. But he could not have "evolved" to supporting same-sex marriage without the vocal support of a growing number of Americans who stand with him. I for, one did not expect such an enormous change to occur within a period of less than 25 years. Change is not only possible in America; it happens within our lifetime.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

What Fantasy Life?

Friday, April 27th, 2012

The cover story of Newsweek reads: "The Fantasy Life of Working Women, why surrender is a feminist dream."

What fantasy life? Maybe the one percent of working women who have time to fantasize about getting spanked by their lovers, but not the 99 percent who are still trying to figure out when or whether to spank a child at all.

As for a fantasy life, working women are more likely to fantasize about finding the perfect child care provider who she can both trust and afford. She might also fantasize that tonight her husband will both shop for and cook dinner. And yes, she will fantasize about lit candles and grown-up conversation at the table, instead of having to wipe up the second glass of spilt milk.

And she may imagine that if only her boss would let her work four days a week instead of five, she could achieve what she has always heard about but never managed to accomplish — a work/life balance.

The working mom who is happily gazing at her precious newborn might allow herself to dream that she could stay home for six months or, ideally a year, to take care of her baby without losing either her job or her total paycheck. She has heard rumors that this happens in other countries.

Yes, women do like to fantasize. And some day, who knows, some of these fantasies may be realized by the 99 percent who dream them every working day. If they have time — they may fantasize about sex. What sex?


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

Golf in a Burka

Monday, April 16th, 2012

I hadn't thought that women were particularly dangerous golfers. Could that be the reason that the Augusta National Golf club refuses to take down its "No Women Allowed" sign?

I wonder what the male members of the club are afraid of. Could they be thinking that women are too sexually distracting to play with or even in the proximity of men? Perhaps if women wore Burkas and covered themselves from head to toe — and I respect those who wear them — male golfers would feel less threatened. But then again, Burkas would create a terrible golf handicap.

It's hard to take a swing when your arms are restricted by the equivalent of a walking sleeping bag. It's even harder to see around corners, or even straight ahead, when you're confined to slits of light no bigger than a peep hole. But Burkas would protect male golfers from being exposed to bare armed, bare ankled and bare faced women.

On second thought, wearing them could be quite dangerous for women. How could they dodge a bad shot from another golfer? Male golfers could be at risk as well. What if a burka-clad woman were mistaken for a tree? Suddenly, a shot comes from nowhere. No time to duck.

Maybe it's female competition they're afraid of. Not too likely, since women play in women's tournaments and men play in men's tournaments, just like boys and girls bathrooms. No one goes in the other door, except by mistake.

Maybe it's the IDEA of having women on what has traditionally been male turf that is so upsetting. It seems that men, after all, can get emotional about that. You can't play with us. It's our game and we're going to keep it that way. The fear of male and female golfers mingling — yes, mingling — may go back to the hunter-gatherer days. We hunt and gather, you cook and clean.

A golf club may be a dangerous weapon, as Tiger Woods discovered when his wife attacked him with one, but I have not yet heard of a deer being killed by a golf club, even during hunting season in Vermont.

It could be that women are denied admission to this exclusive club — even when they are the female CEO of IBM and, one of the sponsors of the Masters tournament — because they might blush at dirty jokes or disapprove of foul language. I for one, have not seen a woman blush in some time.

The good news is that Barack Obama and all the past and present Republican Presidential candidates, including Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, are in favor of opening the Augusta gates to women.

What does that mean? It could mean that if the Augusta National Golf Club is afraid of letting women in, the Presidential candidates are afraid of keeping them out. Hmm. Women may be powerful, after all.


Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of The New Feminist Agenda, and

Pearls, Politics and Power.

Heart of Art: Art as a Pathway to Political Compromise

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

"I didn't know you were an artist," my friend said with a note of surprise in her voice. She had just seen my woodcut hanging in the Amy Tarrant gallery at the Flynn Center. I had been asked to make a print for a Burlington City Arts and Flynn Center combined benefit show which included 30 people—it is the 30th anniversary of both organizations— some professional artists, and others like me, who were included because of our name recognition.

The word "artist" is not in my resume, but the word "art" is part of my life. I don't see a contradiction between being a politician and an artist. Winston Churchill is the leader who immediately comes to mind as
an example. Known as a "Sunday painter," his watercolors were widely exhibited. It's interesting to entertain the idea that if more men and women in public life became "Sunday painters," they might become better Monday-through-Saturday policy makers. If politicians were to permit themselves to step away for a few hours each week from the rapid-fire schedule of political life to look closely at the world around them, and to express their own creativity, who knows what might happen? My imagination soars at the thought. For
one thing, they might be in a better mood and treat each other with greater civility. There might be less name calling and more legislating.

For another, by carefully looking at their surroundings, whether it is out the window on to a city street, or at a landscape while driving, or in the dining room gazing at a floral arrangement, they could see beyond their wealthy contributors, insistent lobbyists, and the confined architecture of the Congress.

They might even transfer their creativity from making art to forging legislation which does not only please one side, but is the patchwork quilt of different points of view, known as compromise.

When I say "art," I mean all the arts—poetry, fiction, non- fiction, dance, music, theatre, movies. I have always felt the need to integrate them into my life, even when I was Governor of Vermont. I can thank my
mother for having exposed me as a child to these riches. She took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and classical music pervaded our apartment, thanks to the New York classical radio station, WQXR—whose announcers also turned out to be excellent English teachers for a family who was just learning the language. (My first language was Swiss German.)

I learned to draw when my mother used to give me a pencil and a piece of white paper to keep me occupied while we were having tea in a cafe with her friends. When I became the mother of four children, I entertained them, covering them with their father's shirts, put on backwards, and settled them in front of an easel, with baby food jars of tempera paint balanced on the rim. Art was often an enjoyable way for me to satisfy my need for self expression. I took a sculpture class with Paul Achenbach at the University of Vermont, and in the 1970s made my first few woodcuts of trees, of children dancing in a circle, and of Vietnamese woman planting rice. I must have been diverted to other things, because I didn't pick up a block of wood again until Burlington City Arts asked me to.

Throughout my adult life, I always belonged to a book club. The first group was put together my Laura Cummings, once the owner of the Everyday Bookshop. She was older than all of us young mothers who were then occupied with caring for our children. We had one rule: nobody could discuss recipes or kids.

Reading has been a staple in my life. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction. It seems too obvious to state, but there is no doubt that a public person can learn a great deal from the private lives of others as portrayed in literature. For me, it was highly enjoyable to enter worlds so different from my own.

The "news" as we know it today is without a doubt, hardly ever enjoyable. It is necessary to be informed, of course, but it is not necessary to be harangued, which is often the case. Stopping for poetry, as Frost did by stopping in the woods one snowy evening, allows for thought, for respite from the daily pounding of
information in our heads.

The world of artistic creativity and hard-nosed political reality seem miles apart to most observers. I see a linkage. Political life, at its very best, is a creative process. Finding solutions to problems calls on the imagination to envision a different future. One has to put old ideas together in new combinations to solve a problem.

Art —in all its forms—provides what nothing else can—a better understanding of the human condition. It is a door through which we walk to understand the complexity of emotions, the diversity of beliefs and opinions, and finally— the richness of the world around us.

Madeleine M. Kunin, former Governor of Vermont, is the author of the forthcoming book, The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work and Family.

Early Childhood Education is where it Starts

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

In President Obama's State of the Union address he made a good case for young people to stay in school. He said, "We also know that when students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight I am proposing that every state–every state–requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18."

He received a round of applause. Everybody approved because it makes common sense. Average annual income for a high school dropout is $17,299 compared to $26,933 for a high school graduate. Worse yet, many high school dropouts can't find any job because they lack the skills.

If it's such a good idea to stay in school until the age of 18 or graduation, why have only 21 states passed this law? Because by the time a student reaches 16, it is often too late.

If we are to be serious about reducing the dropout rate in this country we have to begin much earlier. Many low income children fall behind their classmates as early as kindergarten. If we want to increase the number of high school graduates we have to focus on the years one through five. That's when critical brain development takes place that often determines whether the young child will grow into a successful, productive adult.

It's not just about test scores. In addition to doing well in math and reading, long term studies demonstrate that children learn non-cognitive skills early–like the ability to complete a task, focus, and work cooperatively. Long term studies of 40-year-old adults who attended excellent pre-schools indicate that they are more likely to complete high school, and have lower unemployment, and lower incarceration rates than a control group who did not attend these pre-schools.

Early investment in children our best investment, according to Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman, who believes that money spent on quality childcare and early education, has the highest rate of return.

Vermont has an opportunity to lead the way. We can be pleased that we have the highest graduation rate, but we cannot be complacent. Every Vermonter should have a high school diploma, but to succeed every Vermont child should have access to quality childcare and early education.

pearls Madeleine M. Kunin is the author of Pearls, Politics and Power.