Florida's big, bad prekindergarten program
It's been 10 years since Florida voters took matters into their own hands, mandating a state-funded, high quality, universal prekindergarten program that lawmakers wouldn't create.
Lawmakers and bureaucrats took three years to put the system together. From the beginning, early education advocates had high hopes, but major concerns. VPK, as it came to be called, had promise because it aimed to serve so many 4 year olds, but at the same time it didn't require degreed teachers, offer recommended curriculum or provide a way to determine if schools were making a difference with their students.
David Lawrence of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation offered the same critique of VPK in 2011 that he offered in 2007 that he warned of before that. And now the National Institute for Early Education Research has driven home the point with its latest pre-k yearbook evaluating all states' prekindergarten programs.
It ranks Florida first for access, last for quality.
"We spent over $3 billion on the program," said Linda Alexionok of the Children's Campaign. "We got improved babysitting."
It's not for lack of trying, Alexionok said. A task force led by former lieutenant governor Toni Jennings created a long-term implementation plan (attached below) that could have placed Florida "at the top of the ladder," she said. But instead, lawmakers reduced per-student funding ($2,383 for 2012-13 vs. $2,500 in 2005-06), increased pre-k student-teacher ratios and never even considered bipartisan bills to increase pre-k teacher credential requirements.
So where Florida actually made four of 10 NIEER standards in years past, it now achieves only three. Some schools offer excellence. Others -- too many in some critics' judgment -- fall far short.
There's been little debate about the value of early education to a child's long-term future. Yet concerns keep arising that pre-k programs are threatened when they probably should be growing. The Obama administration has created an early education Race to the Top initiative to help. Five states -- not including Florida -- have been deemed eligible.
"Looking ahead, Florida can be considered a battleground state for pre-K," NIEER executive director Steve Barnett said in a release. "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."
What can Florida do to make good on its prekindergarten promise? Any thoughts?