If it is true that our children are our future, I am convinced that Florida's future is bleak.
While Florida has the nation's highest percentage of 4-year-old children in a state prekindergarten program, taxpayers are being shortchanged on their investment on at least two fronts: The program is not adequately funded and instruction in many classrooms is of poor quality.
In its 10th annual report, released last week, the National Institute for Early Education Research shows that Florida's Legislature, mostly Republicans, is unwise and stingy. Each year since 2005, when 61 percent of voters approved the voluntary prekindergarten constitutional amendment, lawmakers have cut per child spending or lowered standards for instruction in their effort to balance the budget.
This is a worrisome trend in a state whose voters have set a lofty goal for universal prekindergarten enrollment. But it shouldn't be news to Florida lawmakers. For years, the Children's Movement of Florida, along with other education advocates, have been trying to impress on Tallahassee that better investment and expectations for children in their preschool years will pay dividends for decades in improved high school graduation rates and lower incarcerations.
According to NIEER, Florida's spending per child for the 2010-11 school year, the most current number available, was $2,422, well below the national average of $4,141. This figure ranks Florida 35 out of 39 states with public prekindergarten programs.
Shortsightedness is not the only problem. NIEER reports that Florida is low on professionalism. Teachers, for example, are merely required to have completed coursework in early literacy and hold a child development associate certificate, which is slightly higher than a high school diploma. I do not mean to knock the people filling these positions, but we should set our standards higher.
I believe that pre-K programs, which prepare students for kindergarten and beyond, are so important that we should put our best teachers with our youngest students. After all, research demonstrates that 90 percent of brain development comes before the age of 5. The nation's best pre-K programs hire teachers with a strong background in education and training and who have a bachelor's degree.
NIEER, with the backing of the U.S. Department of Education, has 10 benchmarks for measuring the quality of prekindergarten programs. Only five of the 39 states with public pre-K systems met all 10 benchmarks, which include class sizes that do not exceed 20 children, the adoption of comprehensive early learning standards and regular, on-site visits to monitor quality.
Disappointingly, Florida met only three of the quality benchmarks. To satisfy all 10 benchmarks, according to NIEER, the state would have to spend $4,464 per child, nearly double what it spends today. That will not be happening any time soon given the GOP stranglehold in Tallahassee.
The short- and long-term value of pre-K education, especially for children from low-income families, cannot be overestimated.
"There is strong evidence showing that young children who participate in high quality pre-K programs enter school more ready to learn than their peers," according to the Center for Public Education. "The national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study … shows students who attended a pre-K program scored higher on reading and math tests than children receiving (only) parental care. Students who attended a child care center or other preschool programs also showed gains, although former pre-K students exhibited the greatest achievement."
In addition to academic progress — learning numbers, letters, colors and shapes — children in pre-K programs learn how to become students. Researchers find that, among many other skills, in pre-K classrooms, children learn how to raise their hands, take turns and capture the teacher's attention. And they learn how to socialize.
Kindergarten teachers long have pointed out that students who are ready to learn on the first day are those who come to school with "good" behavior and social skills.
We Floridians need to start paying more attention to our voluntary pre-K programs and elect lawmakers who also care. We need to provide effective screening to identify children who may be struggling, especially those in low-income families, before they enter kindergarten. We need to insist on small class sizes, and we need to put our best teachers with our children.
Florida may have the nation's highest voluntary pre-K enrollment, but we certainly can't brag about our teachers' qualifications or the per-child investment. We are giving lip service to the future. When will we get serious about pre-K education and demand improvements?