Florida Special Session Yields Preschool Plan
Private Providers Are to Offer a Majority of New Pre-K Classes
Next fall, Floridians will have the prekindergarten program they asked for in a 2002 statewide ballot measure, though it may take a while for the program to include what experts consider necessary for a high-quality preschool system.
In a special one-week legislative session last month, Florida lawmakers approved a plan in which three-hour prekindergarten classes would be offered largely by private preschool and child-care providers. Instructors in the program would need to have some early-childhood-education training, but they would not, in the first year, be required to have even a two-year college degree.
Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to sign the bill.
While Democrats tried to strengthen the measure during the special session, Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate rejected most of their proposals, which included longer hours for preschool and higher credentials for teachers.
The only adjustment made to the bill during the session was the addition of a provision that calls for a second teacher in classes that reach more than 10 children.
At least one of those standards falls far below what preschool experts recommend. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, a think tank based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., prekindergarten teachers should have a bachelor’s degree. Currently, 13 states require teachers in their public pre-K programs to have a four-year degree.
Early-childhood-education advocates expressed relief that the program would be up and running for the 2005-06 school year, but pledged to keep pressure on lawmakers to improve the program over time.
“The ‘shining city on the hill’ for pre-K has not yet come to pass. This is not perfect legislation,” David Lawrence, the president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, a nonprofit group in Miami, wrote in a commentary for The Miami Herald. “There will be significant struggles in the years to come to ensure that we, among other priorities, reach the goal for ever-increasing credentials for teachers.”
In fact, the amount the state will spend to deliver the program won’t be completely determined until the legislature convenes in March for its regular session. Some estimates, however, run around $400 million a year.
Questions also remain over what the children will actually be taught. Preschool providers won’t be required to use any particular curriculum, but will need to focus on early literacy skills, such as vocabulary and letter knowledge.
Mr. Lawrence, a former publisher of the Herald, began working to improve programs for young children in the 1990s. After the preschool measure passed, he served as a member of the advisory council charged with recommending standards for the new program.
That committee recommended at least four hours of instructional time per day.
Churches Can Participate
Before the bill passed, Mr. Lawrence said in an interview that the plan hashed out by a joint committee wasn’t “as far along as I would like,” but was still “vastly better than what we had the first time around.”
In July, Gov. Bush vetoed an earlier version of a pre-K bill, which he said did not live up to the standards that voters expected when they passed the 2002 ballot measure.
It’s also unclear at this point how many children will enroll in the program, though some estimates put the number at about 150,000. Like pre-K programs in Georgia and Oklahoma, it will be open to any 4-year-old, regardless of family income.
While Georgia’s program is housed in public schools and in private centers, most schools in Florida won’t have space to offer prekindergarten classrooms. Not only are many schools already overcrowded, but districts are also trying to comply with a statewide class-size-reduction measure also passed in 2002.
The role of religious organizations, which will be allowed to contract with the state to offer prekindergarten programs, will receive ongoing scrutiny.
Critics say allowing churches to participate in publicly funded prekindergarten violates a state constitutional provision against giving tax money to religious institutions. But supporters of the current legislation say it simply gives parents a choice.
In Georgia, where the state’s lottery-financed pre-K program served as a model for Florida lawmakers, classes can be held in churches as long as no religious instruction occurs during the hours that pre-K is offered.
Vol. 24, Issue 16, Pages 19-20