donna_e._shalala_fc_web.jpgThe Children's Movement of Florida, in association with the University of Miami, announced that it will host the first ever gubernatorial debate devoted exclusively to the needs of Florida's children.

The debate slated for  Oct. 16 between major candidates vying to become the state's next governor will be held at the University of Miami in Coral Gables and will be broadcast statewide by television and on the Internet.

"Nothing can be more important to the people and future of Florida than the well-being and education of our children," said David Lawrence Jr., co-chair man of The Children's Movement of Florida.

"Never before have candidates for Florida's highest office engaged in a debate focused solely on the needs of our youngest, most vulnerable citizens," said Lawrence, who is also founding chairman of The Children's Trust of Miami-Dade and retired publisher of The Miami Herald.

The debate announcement said 3,000 parents, children's advocates and other supporters of the Children's Movement of Florida , along with UM students, will be in the audience.

"I am delighted the University of Miami will host this vitally important debate," said university President Donna E. Shalala. “The welfare and education of children in this state should be one of the highest concerns of our gubernatorial candidates. The citizens of Florida deserve to hear how they plan to address critical issues affecting our most precious resource—children.”

The announcement added that the non-partisan Children’s Movement of Florida, led by a 27-member committee of influential Floridians, will also launch a statewide, citizen-led series of "Milk Parties" on behalf of children.

The series of 15 rallies will be conducted throughout the state, beginning in Pensacola on Sept. 6 and ending in Key West on Sept. 30.

The thousands of people expected to take part in these Milk Parties will be asked to submit questions for the debate, share information about the debate with relatives, friends and co-workers, and organize debate-viewing parties.

The debate will focus on the first five issues to be addressed by The Children's Movement of Florida: access to health insurance and quality health care, screening and treatment for special needs, quality pre-kindergarten opportunities, high-quality mentoring programs, and support and information for parents.

"Florida consistently ranks at or near the bottom in measure after measure of how we invest in our children," Lawrence said. "The time has come to change that. At stake is the economic future of our state and the stability, safety and security of the communities in which we live. The well-being and education of Florida's children must become the state's highest priority."

The panel for the debate will comprise Lawrence, former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings and Bob Butterworth, former Florida attorney general and former secretary of the Department of Children and Families.

The announcement said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink has agreed to take part in the debate and discussions were taking place with Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott.

The announcement described The Children's Movement of Florida as a non-partisan organization that does not endorse candidates. Its steering committee comprises 12 Republicans, 12 Democrats and three independents.

The Milk Parties will include appearances by movement leaders, children's advocates, entertainers and celebrities and other supporters. Refreshments will include milk and cookies. A bus called "The Children's Express" will carry the group on "The Children's Movement Road Tour" from city to city.

The objective is to educate political, business and civic leaders – and all parents – about what the movement said was an urgent need to improve the way Florida cares for its children, making the well-being and education of the youngest and most vulnerable citizens the state's highest priority.

No public funds are being used by the movement, which has raised nearly $1 million in donations from foundations and private contributors, the announcement said.

For information about the “Milk Party” rallies and The Children's Movement of Florida and about the current state of Florida's children, log on to