A First for Florida … and a Last!

Nearly a decade has passed since Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring voluntary pre-kindergarten be available for every four year old.  How is the VPK program faring?

Not very well according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in its State of Preschool 2011:  State Preschool Yearbook. While Florida ranks first in access, it is last among 39 states with pre-k programs when combining per child spending levels and measures of quality.

preK1.pngFlorida met only 3 of 10 benchmarks.  Only one state met fewer.  Meanwhile, other southern states — Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina – met every standard.

The landmark national report capped 10 years of research.  Florida’s position of being both first and last is called a “paradox” by NIEER.

Synonyms for paradox are “absurdity” or “contradiction.”

“Even in the face of this devastating assessment, I’m sure that some in Florida’s early learning community will put a brightly colored ribbon on the mostly empty box,” said Roy Miller, a watchdog for children and president of The Children’s Campaign. “They usually point to screening tools used only in Florida that show the barest minimum of progress as a way of deflecting concern about pre-k educational reform,” Miller added.

The NIEER report gave credit to Florida for having developed comprehensive early learning standards.  At the same time, however, Florida fails to provide quality teachers, sufficient in-service education and training, or staff to child ratios oriented around quality.

“I’m amazed that providers find a way to cope,” said Linda Alexionok, executive director of The Children’s Campaign.  “It’s one thing to require performance on paper.  It’s quite another to provide the resources needed to meet quality expectations in real life.”

Florida budget managers, generally, are quick to point out that overall funding for pre-kindergarten has increased.  But funding must expand as enrollment grows to conform to the constitutional amendment mandating access.  It is not readily mentioned, however, that per child spending has gradually receded from the level where the program first started, and that funding was low to begin with when compared to other states.

Steve Barnett, director of NIEER, wrote in his press release that “Florida risks not attaining the benefits of a high-quality early education program for its children by focusing on access at the expense of quality. Low investment will not yield high results if quality is absent, regardless of how many children participate.”

“Let me put it this way,” Alexionok said.  “At what point does orange juice stop being juice if all that you add is water?”

snailprek1.pngFlorida’s strategy for pre-kindergarten has run into other difficulties.  It was passed over last year in a national competition for the $500 million Race-to-the-Top – Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).  These federal dollars to improve early education systems went to other states.

According to Alexionok, states receiving high NIEER rankings and who won those dollars in the first round clearly understand the benefits of a strong pre-K education.

Florida has largely ignored its initial statewide plan, “Implementing Florida’s Universal Prekindergarten Education (UPK) Program, created in 2003 by the UPK Advisory Council, chaired by then Lt. Governor, Toni Jennings.

That plan, projected at the time to be fully operational by 2013, incorporated research-based policies and practices, detailed infrastructure-building, career paths for teachers, and a prudent schedule for fiscal investments.

“Florida’s early learning community and lawmakers scrapped that plan in order to chart a different course,” said Miller.  “Billions of dollars later, the VPK plane has missed the runway.”

Florida has a new pre-k pilot, Mel Jurado, Ph. D, Director of Florida’s Office of Early Learning. Jurado has expressed a commitment to develop a research-based, stakeholder-driven initiative.  She’ll find in Jennings’ original report a wealth of information and recommendations on which to build.

“We’re encouraged by Jurado’s comments. It is time to dust off the original document and get to work addressing it,” Alexionok said.

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The Children’s Campaign is both a watchdog group and an organization that initiates systemic reform through responsive and responsible public policy. We engage diverse citizens, stakeholders and experts in non-partisan, consensus oriented dialogue, establish a policy framework with specific recommendations, and then take action while stressing accountability.

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