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Published in Print: January 15, 2003, as Fla. Legislators Preparing To Craft the Specifics For Universal Pre-K

Fla. Legislators Preparing To Craft the Specifics For Universal Pre-K

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When Florida lawmakers begin working on new legislation this year, one task that is bound to be a top priority is determining how to implement the state's universal-prekindergarten initiative, which was approved by voters in November.

Experts in early-childhood education have already been busy examining research and gathering recommendations so that the legislators will have a clearer vision of how the program should look.

"We have the very real situation of some legislators saying, 'What is pre-K?'" said Erica McKinney, a senior policy adviser to Mayor Alex Penelas of Miami-Dade County, who led the effort to get the pre-K initiative on the ballot. "It's not that they're insensitive to it, but they don't know anything about it."

James E. King Jr., the incoming president of the Senate, is also trying to provide legislators with better information. He created a select Senate committee to discuss implementation of the new pre-K law, as well as a constitutional amendment requiring class-size reduction and one that affects governance of the higher education system, both of which also won approval on the Nov. 5 ballot. ("Schools to See Big Windfalls From State Ballot Measures," Nov. 13, 2002.)

"It is my hope that the select committee will have irrefutable facts that they can present to the assembly," said Sen. King, a Republican. "The legislature is united in the fact that it doesn't wish for [pre-K] to be a nursery school. This was designed specifically for a child to get some advantageous learning."

Miami-Dade Meeting

Less than two weeks after the election, Mayor Penelas, a Democrat, convened a one-day session involving lawmakers and representatives of the preschool and child-care fields to discuss some of the components of the new program. Prekindergarten must be open to every 4-year-old in the state by the 2005-06 school year.

Preliminary recommendations from that meeting showed just how many decisions must be made over the next two years.

For example, participants discussed whether the new program should be housed in the Florida Department of Education or in a separate agency, whether teachers in the program should have four-year degrees or can serve with lesser credentials, and whether programs should be accredited.

One firm message from the gathering is that—as in neighboring Georgia—Florida's pre-K offerings will be delivered by a variety of providers, including public schools, Head Start centers, and for-profit, nonprofit, and faith-based centers.

Florida is also considering adding more flexibility than in Georgia by allowing family child-care providers, who offer care to small numbers of children in their homes, to apply to offer the pre-K program.

Learning From Georgia

Clearly, Florida policymakers plan to learn from the experiences in Georgia, which began its lottery-financed prekindergarten program in 1993. The Georgia plan serves more than 60,000 children, regardless of family income.

For example, David Lawrence Jr.—the chairman of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness, a state agency overseeing early- childhood education and child-care spending—believes that instead of allowing the state education department to administer the program, the wisest place to house it would be within an agency patterned after Georgia's Office for School Readiness, which is an arm of the governor's office.

The closest organization Florida has to that now is the partnership, which was originally part of Gov. Jeb Bush's office, but then was moved to the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, which is in charge of welfare-to-work programs.

"My concern is that the [state] department of education will see it as just another grade, and they don't have enough resources to do the grades we have," said Mr. Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher who retired in 1999.

In addition to serving as the chairman of the Partnership for School Readiness, he is the president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami-Dade County. The foundation seeks to improve health, education, and child care for children from birth through age 5.

"There are folks who would argue for a total public school model, but I'm comfortable with public- private partnerships," Mr. Lawrence said.

Besides, he argued, pre-K should be treated differently from K-12.

While it should have a curriculum, he pointed out that there should also be a significant emphasis on play and social and physical development. Experts who attended the Nov. 15 meeting also stressed that the pre-K program should provide families with links to other child-care services for those children needing full-day care.

In these early stages, though, state education officials are envisioning that the education department will run the program, similar to the arrangement for other scholarship programs.

A "white paper" written before the fall elections by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents argued that "public schools are a natural setting for prekindergarten programs" because they would make the transition to kindergarten smoother for children, and because children could benefit from other support services, such as transportation and food programs.

Florida also has challenges that are different from the start-up issues Georgia faced.

To begin with, Florida has a much larger student population than Georgia does. It is estimated that when the pre-K program opens statewide in the fall of 2005, at least 217,000 Florida children will be eligible to attend, compared to 62,000 in Georgia.

Georgia's prekindergarten program was championed by then-Gov. Zell Miller, who had also identified a funding source: the state lottery.

But financing for Florida's program—which could cost more than $500 million, according to a legislative research office—has not yet been determined.

Meanwhile, Florida legislators are also required to reduce class sizes over the next several years, and pre-K advocates are trying to keep the two new state goals from competing with each other.

Anne Mitchell, an expert on state-financed pre-K programs and the founder of Early Childhood Policy Research, a consulting organization in Climax, N.Y., said some school officials might already be thinking, "Don't put the 4-year-olds here" because the officials know they'll need more K-12 classrooms in the near future.

'A Role for Everyone'

Another issue under discussion is the role of Florida's 57 local school-readiness coalitions, which were formed along with the Florida partnership in 1999. The coalitions determine the needs for children under age 5 in their communities.

"I think there is a role for everyone," Ms. McKinney, the adviser to Mayor Penelas, said about the coalitions. "They know what the pulse is. They know what their local providers can do."

Mr. Lawrence added that the local coalitions also have the important job of focusing "on the crucial years that occur before the age of four."

One idea that has been floated is the possibility of launching some pilot "universal" pre-K programs in Miami-Dade County and other large metropolitan areas before 2005. But Mr. Lawrence said he would rather see people spend their time determining what the standards should be for the program.

"We really do know what works," he said. "The real questions here are what do you mean by quality? What kind of teachers do you need? What are the curricula that might be acceptable?"

Whatever shape universal prekindergarten takes in Florida, the general feeling is that passage of the ballot measure has re-energized advocates for early-childhood education.

Vol. 22, Issue 18, Page 14

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