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Hillary Clinton’s Child-Advocacy Work Takes Convention Spotlight

By Alyson Klein — July 27, 2016 6 min read
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Former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday made his wife Hillary Clinton’s work on behalf of children, including her education advocacy as first lady of Arkansas, the centerpiece of the case for electing her president, on the night she officially became the Democratic Party’s nominee.

Building on the message of a succession of speakers throughout the night, the former president told delegates to the Democratic National Convention that his wife has been interested in children’s issues for as long as he’s known her, recounting her work over several decades.

Among those efforts: investigating school desegregation in the South, bringing an Israeli early-childhood
education to Arkansas when she served as the state’s first lady under his governorship, and helping, during his presidency, to create the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which helps cover health care costs for low-income children.

And, he said, Hillary Clinton—who became the first woman to clinch a major party’s nomination—has reached across the aisle to help children and youths. For instance, he highlighted her work with former Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a major Clinton political adversary, on legislation to help foster and adoptive children.

“She’s the best darn change maker I’ve ever met in my entire life,” he told a roaring crowd at Wells Fargo Center here.

The former president’s stories presented a softer side of Clinton, who is sometimes painted as cold and hard-edged. At the same time, he portrayed his wife as a champion of historically disadvantaged and marginalized groups. That seemed like an open appeal to supporters of her opponent in the primary, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who ran as a defender of lower- and middle-income people and at times cast her as too cozy with corporations.

As a young woman, her husband said, Hillary Clinton was greatly influenced by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, a child-advocacy group. He recalled the work his wife did for the organization in her twenties, and the long-ranging impact it had.

On behalf of CDF, Hillary Clinton investigated juvenile justice in South Carolina, where minors were sharing jail with adult offenders, her husband recalled. And, pretending to be a parent looking to enroll her child in school, she called around to so-called “segregation” academies in Alabama, helping to bolster Wright Edelman’s case that the Nixon administration was giving private schools that refused to enroll children of color tax exempt status. (More background in this New York Times story.)

“She got so involved in children’s issues that she actually took an extra year in law school working at the [Yale] Child Study Center to learn what more could be done to improve the lives and futures of poor children,” Bill Clinton said.

After graduating, she went to Massachusetts to figure out why so many students in special education were showing up on the census but weren’t enrolled in school. Her research on that issue eventually informed the first Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Bill Clinton said.

“She never made fun of people with disabilities, she tried to empower them,” he said, an obvious reference to his wife’s opponent, Donald Trump, who mocked a reporter with a disability last year.

And, Bill Clinton, who himself was an early leader in the standards-based education redesign movement, talked about his wife’s work on K-12 education as first lady of Arkansas, home to “woefully underfunded schools that were the worst in America,” he said.

Hillary Clinton traveled to every corner of the state, Bill Clinton recalled, and ultimately recommended that the Arkansas become the first state in the nation to require elementary school counselors in every school, as well as raise teacher pay and bolster academic standards. She even sold her plan to the legislature, prompting one lawmaker to joke that Arkansans had elected “the wrong Clinton.”

Student outcomes in Arkansas improved dramatically as a result, he said. “That’s because of those standards that Hillary developed,” he claimed.

Hillary Clinton has made expanding access to early-childhood education a central part of her campaign—she has a plan to move toward universal prekindergarten and ramp up home-visiting services for at-risk children. That started, Bill Clinton, told the crowd, back in Arkansas, when Hillary Clinton brought the Home Instruction Program for Parents of Preschool Youngsters to the state. Started in Israel, HIPPY offers home-visiting services to low-income parents.

“Next thing I know I’m being dragged around to all these little preschool graduations,” Bill Clinton said.

He even talked about her work at the School of Law at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. She wouldn’t let her students off the hook, he said, even if they said they didn’t think they were up to her standards because they were “from Arkansas”

Hillary Clinton would say “‘Don’t tell me that—you’re as smart as anybody, you’ve just got to believe in yourself and set high goals,’” Bill Clinton recalled.

Beyond Bill

Other speakers testifying to Clinton’s work as a children’s champion included Anton Moore, who founded and runs a nonprofit that works to bring awareness to gun violence; and Thaddeus Desmond, a child advocate and social worker in Philadelphia.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, kicked off the night talking about Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for people with disabilities, including children.

Donna Brazile, the incoming chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, who worked with the nominee at the Children’s Defense Fund, said that as a young woman, Clinton “didn’t want to talk about anything other than how to make children’s lives better.”

And Dustin Parsons, a 5th grade teacher from Arkansas, talked up Clinton’s efforts to expand access to rigorous coursework and give schools access to more resources when she served as first lady of the state. She subjected schools to “the Chelsea test,” he said, meaning that if they weren’t good enough for her own daughter, they weren’t good for any child.

Also taking the stage: Jelani Freeman, who grew up in foster care and took an internship slot that Clinton reserved in her office for foster children.

“Hillary had this ridiculous notion that every child had a right to live up to their God-given potential,” Freeman said. “And in 2003, I got that spot. ... Hillary has taught me that there is a high cost for low expectations for our kids. ... Hillary’s love ... lifted me to a place I never had the courage to imagine.” Freeman now works with at-risk students.

Tuesday night also featured students from the Eagle Academy, an innovative school in New York City that serves boys of color, and which Hillary Clinton advocated for when she served in the Senate.

Delegates also heard from “Mothers of the Movement,” a group of seven women whose children were killed due to gun violence or excessive use of force by police, including Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Travon Martin, who was shot while out in his neighborhood in 2012; and Lezley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in 2014, spurring protests across the country.

Those protests helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which has caused schools nationwide to examine “implicit bias"—unconscious prejudice—in discipline practices.

So did the big education push work?

Some in the audience who were already in Clinton’s corner seemed even more fired up. A self-described “Hillary gal,” Lucia Baez, a high school literature teacher at Miami Beach Senior High School in Miami-Dade County schools, said Clinton’s biography makes it clear she will be good for schools.

“She has the vision and the courage to support our children, our schools, and most important our families to gain the economic and political resources they need,” said Baez.

But, in the midst of the speeches Tuesday night, Chuck Pascal, a Pennsylvania delegate, a former school board member, and a member of the Badass Teachers Association, a union splinter group, said he still trusts Sanders more on K-12 issues.

“This party has moved beyond that position of privatizing and charterizing right now,” Pascal said, adding that while Clinton is moving in the right direction, she’s doing so “glacially.”

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Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.