In Tallahassee, they are calling it early learning reform. But it's really a latchkey kid creation act. With little notice, the Legislature appears ready to end subsidized after-school care for up to 15,000 children between 5 and 12 years old who come from homes of poor working parents. Lawmakers say they are just reorganizing the state's School Readiness Program to reduce the 75,000-person waiting list for subsidized care for infants to 5-year-olds. But pitting the needs of the youngest against those of school-aged children is a false choice, forced by the Republican leadership's continued refusal to consider new revenue.
Florida's economy depends heavily on low-paying service jobs, from hotel housekeepers to retail clerks. The state's subsidized child care program — largely funded through federal dollars — helps ensure they can afford to work. The average family receiving subsidized day care is a single parent earning about $19,000 with two young children, according to the Florida Children Services Council. With state help, child care takes 7 percent of her income; without it, child care would consume more than half. Families qualify for services if they make up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or $27,795 for a family of three.
The School Readiness Program can do better. Long waiting lists for all ages means thousands of families who could use help don't get it. And a state auditor general found the decentralized program — which sends money through 31 regional Early Learning Coalitions to be distributed — has failed to embrace modern accountability standards, leading to questionable spending and inefficiencies.
Fixing those problems should be the Legislature's focus, but lawmakers want to overhaul the entire system, strip some local control and reduce aid for school-aged children (HB 7119 and 5103/SB 1924). Their argument: Science shows preschool intervention is far more effective in determining a child's academic success. That's fine, but what are thousands of working parents going to do when they lose their after-school care subsidy for their children? Quit working, or leave their kids home alone?
Child care advocates aren't necessarily fighting the priority. But they want to continue to allow school-aged children to receive aid when there is money left over. While subsidized infant care remains in high demand, the Early Learning Coalitions often struggle to find enough qualified providers willing to accept the state's rate of reimbursement — meaning there could be money available to help older children with aftercare.
Child care advocates are also fighting a change pushed by for-profit child care providers in the House plan that could undercut the very premise of the School Readiness Program by lowering academic requirements for providers. The bill sponsors, St. Petersburg Reps. Larry Ahern, a Republican, and Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, should listen.
The business community that relies on these low-paid workers should be raising its voice to ensure those workers have access to affordable child care, but this legislation has quietly advanced and could well become law. Florida should not be eliminating after-school care for thousands of working families to pay for care for infants. It should have the will and the resources to provide both.