03/02/2011 02:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Kids Last?

In the political arena, the old lifesaving motto is reversed: it's "children last." Children don't matter because children don't vote, the adage goes. That's why government spends just $1 per child for every $9 it spends on seniors.

Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a war between the generations. Grandparents have a special appreciation for the young (indeed, some of them wish they could have skipped the parent stage and gone straight to grandparenting). What's more they have more time than harried parents to devote to kids' concerns. With 10,000 Americans turning 60 every year, an increasing number of seniors volunteer as mentors. In the nationwide Experience Corps program, for instance, seniors tutor kindergarteners through third graders in reading, with documented benefits to both. But volunteering is one thing, policy something else. Despite the bluster of the Tea Party crowd, serious reform of Social Security, Medicare and prescription drug programs -- the top priorities for seniors -- remains off the table. The reason is simple. Seniors do vote; and the AARP, which claims 40 million members, more than one in 10 Americans, knows all the tricks of the lobbying trade.

Once again in D.C., it's the kids who are meant to suffer. The budget recently passed by the House of Representatives calls for deep cuts in children's programs. Head Start, which since the 1960s has provided preschool for poor kids, would be eviscerated. Understandably, the organizations that advocate for youth are in a defensive crouch. Across the country states are slashing education budgets. Right now it's hard for children'sadvocates to concentrate on what kids really need -- hard to focus on the kind of cradle-to-career agenda I lay out in my new book, Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children's Lives and America's Future.

To describe the lawmakers' behavior as malign neglect is understating the matter. Smart investments in kids pay off big. Failure to make those investments robs the next generation of its future, denies the country of a vibrant citizenry and undermines our capacity to compete in the global market. The president gets this -- his State of the Union address proposed expanding support for education, even as other government programs would be trimmed. But politics isn't just, or even mainly, about the facts. It's about mobilizing the troops, obliging politicians to take kids' needs seriously.

A just-concluded conference in Washington D.C. could mark the start of an effective kids-first strategy. The goal is to assure that all children are reading at grade level by grade three. That's a good start. As things stand, two out of every three fourth graders are not proficient in reading, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. The research shows that most of those youngsters are on the path to failure in school. It doesn't have to be this way. "Children are practical creatures," says John Merrow, author of an important new book, The Influence of Teachers. "They want to read so they can navigate their environment."

While conferences are a dime a dozen, this one seems special. It focused on one easy-to-understand objective, rather than setting out a wish list. It linked organizations, ranging from the Birth-to-Five Alliance to the teachers' unions, which haven't always had much time for one other. It prompted 75 foundations, which don't always work and play well together, to sing from the same songbook. It got state and federal officials from the education and social services worlds talking to, not past, one another. Just possibly, this event could be the launch of an effective kids'-first movement. The organizers think so. They're calling this a campaign.

Reading by third grade "and beyond" is the campaign's goal, and that last phrase is key. Getting 8-year-olds on the path to success is the beginning of the story, but it can't be the entire story. You'd never set the bar so low for a child you love. Don't all children deserve the same opportunities? That's just the Golden Rule, and it ought to be the policy rule as well.