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Published in Print: April 3, 2002, as Florida Districts Weigh Axing Preschool as State Aid Drops

Florida Districts Weigh Axing Preschool as State Aid Drops

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After 10 years of running prekindergarten programs for disadvantaged children, some Florida districts are planning to get out of the early-childhood-education business rather than dip into their K-12 budgets to pay for preschool.

Under changes to Florida law enacted last year, the state now reimburses school districts at the same rate as other child-care providers. The problem, say some early-childhood educators, is that districts often have higher standards than other providers in such areas as teacher qualifications and staff-to-child ratios, and therefore have higher costs.

So now, if school districts want to maintain those standards, they're being forced to make up the difference with local dollars. The upshot is that at least five districts are considering ending their prekindergarten programs at the end of this school year.

"We're draining the pot from the K-12 population," said Sonia Figaredo-Albert, the supervisor of programs for newborns through 5-year-olds for the 35,500-student Sarasota County schools, one of those districts. "We cannot continue taking away from [K-12 students]," she said, "when our class sizes are getting larger."

This school year, the Sarasota district spent more than $2 million from its operating budget to maintain its 380-pupil pre-K program, Ms. Figaredo- Albert said.

The 145,700-student Orange County district is also considering dropping its prekindergarten program, which serves about 1,600 children. But Peggy G. Rivers, the district's senior director for curriculum services, said some schools might be able to continue programs using money from the federal Title I program.

Previously, money for educating Florida 4-year-olds deemed at risk of school failure flowed through the state education department to the districts. For example, Orange County, which includes Orlando, received about $72,000 annually for each class of 20 children.

Under the new formula, which is administered by the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, the office in charge of welfare-to-work programs, the district would receive $57,000 for that class, starting with the coming school year.

"We think we would not be able to sufficiently staff a pre-K program" with that amount, Ms. Rivers said. "We feel strongly that a certified teacher brings a certain level of quality."

A Step Backward?

The legislative changes were part of a series of repeals that the Florida legislature passed last year, including the repeal of the statute that governed the school-based prekindergarten program for disadvantaged children.

That repeal was intended to remove any obstacles to implementing the state's School Readiness Act, passed in 1999. The 1999 law, which also established the Florida Partnership for School Readiness—a new state agency—shifted decisions about child care and early-childhood education to 57 local school readiness coalitions.

Before the repeal, funding for the state's pre-K program remained under the state education department, while the Florida Department of Children and Families retained authority over child-care spending. Now, funding for both of those programs—roughly $680 million this fiscal year—flows to the Agency for Workforce Innovation and then to the partnership.

Some early-childhood advocates in the state are concerned, however, that while the repeal was intended to improve the delivery of services at the local level, some unintended consequences are becoming apparent.

The state's school-based prekindergarten program, which served about 19,600 4-year- olds last year, "was our one program that had standards attached to it that were above the minimum," said Phyllis Kalifeh, the president of the Florida Children's Forum, a network of child-care resource and referral agencies throughout the state.

Some observers say that the most severe impact to families could be in rural areas, where no other providers are available.

"If the school system should pull out, where are those kids going to go?" said Molly A. Jones, the deputy director for public education and policy for the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.

Others are worried that without statewide guidelines for pre-K programs, quality will suffer.

"As the nation has moved toward higher standards for pre-K programs, we're looking at our state actually going the other way," said Latha Krishnaiyer, the chairwoman of the school readiness coalition in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

For now, she added, the 250,000-student Broward County district is "holding firm" and continuing to offer preschool even though it will receive about $1.5 million less from the state in the next fiscal year.

An Opportunity Seen

The changes to Florida's pre-K program come amid signs of growing support in the state for publicly financed programs of early care and education.

A poll conducted last November by the Florida Children's Campaign, a nonpartisan public-awareness project based in Tallahassee, showed that 19 percent of a sample of 800 frequent voters said they wanted to do more to help children and families, including providing high-quality early-childhood programs. Six years ago, when the campaign began asking voters about such issues, only 2 percent said that concern was their top priority.

"Now, we see the opportunity to start connecting the early-care issue to having a quality public education," said Roy W. Miller, the president of the group. He added that much of the increase in support is coming from older voters, who are seeing their children and grandchildren struggle with child-care issues.

That trend could also mean good news for Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County, who is leading a petition drive to get a proposal calling for universal prekindergarten on the statewide ballot in November. So far, about 125,000 names have been collected toward a goal of having 488,000 valid signatures by Aug. 24.

"We feel like pre-K should be treated like any other grade, K-12," said the mayor, who added that he became committed to the idea of prekindergarten when his own two children went through such a program at a public school.

If passed, the ballot measure would establish a free, voluntary program for all 4-year-olds by 2005, without taking money away from existing programs. The legislature would have to identify a new source of funding to support the program, which would focus on children's development and education.

In the meantime, officials of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness say they want to keep school systems at the school readiness table and are exploring some ways to keep them from losing money.

One idea being investigated is to pay all providers the same reimbursement rate for basic services, but then also pay for additional services such as transportation or counseling.

Ms. Figaredo-Albert said she sees the situation as an opportunity for counties to focus more on early-childhood education and for private child- care providers to receive additional training.

"In a positive way, this is a community issue," she said. "They are going to have to look at standards and quality and get funders to invest in children."

Vol. 21, Issue 29, Page 6

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