TAMPA — The Democratic candidates in a hotly contested race to replace Sen. Arthenia Joyner are making their final push to connect with voters before next week's primary.
The four Senate District 19 candidates fielded questions about early childhood education during a forum Tuesday night at the Robert W. Saunders Library in Tampa organized by the Children's Movement of Florida, a group focused on increasing investment in children up to age five.
"I'm not talking about K-12," said outreach and engagement coordinator Elliott Jones. "I'm not talking about higher education. I'm talking about our youngest, most vulnerable population."
The candidates — State Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa, State Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, former state representative Betty Reed of Tampa and St. Petersburg's Augie Ribeiro — discussed potential funding sources for early childhood education, the importance of parental involvement and how to work with a Republican-controlled Legislature to pass effective bills.
Rouson floated the idea of passing an Internet sales tax so those revenues could be spent on early childhood learning.
"If we just capture that and make that a direct funding source for early childhood education, we'll be doing a whole lot," Rouson said.
Florida ranks 44th in the nation for uninsured children, leaving 387,000 children without health insurance, according to the Children's Movement.
It says the state ranks 37th in the country for per student spending. Florida spends $2,347 per child in this age group, which is less than what the state spent in 1996, the group claims.
Rouson, Narain and Reed all discussed previous bills they worked on during their time in the House, several of which were vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. Working with a Republican-controlled Legislature, they said, can be difficult.
"I think we just need to push harder and make sure that money is there," Reed said.
Connecting with Republicans, Narain said, means showing a return on investment. He cited a statistic that says every $1 invested in early childhood learning yields $8 or more in return.
"Being able to speak their language is important," Narain said.
Ribeiro pointed to other Republican-controlled states, such as Alabama or Georgia, that are setting stronger standards and doing a better job of funding these programs.
"We can learn from these other states," Ribeiro said. "This is as important as any terrorist or terrorist threat. If we don't address this issue now, this pre-K education, we are facing threats to our country on all levels."
This is the last scheduled candidate forum for the district, which includes parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, before Tuesday's primary.
The typical forum format doesn't usually allow for much debate or engagement, so candidates have taken to other media, such as direct mail and television ads, to try to distinguish themselves from the other Democrats in the race.
Ribeiro, who has contributed more than a half-million dollars of his own money to his campaign, has spent more on campaign mailers than any other candidate in the race has spent on his or her entire campaign.
Ribeiro's total expenditures as of Aug. 12, the last period available, total nearly $625,000. His opponents combined have spent just over half of that: Narain, $196,000; Rouson, $105,000; Reed, $14,000. Those numbers do not include expenditures from political action committees associated with or supporting the candidates.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.