The science is catching up with what Florida voters understood in 2002 when they voted to publicly pay for a voluntary prekindergarten system for 4-year-olds: Investing early in children's education pays long-term dividends toward their success in life. But for all of the voters' foresight, the state has reneged on its commitment, providing flat funding for the past three years that is 12 percent less per child than what the state spent just five years ago. Gov. Rick Scott wants to increase the investment in the coming year by $100 a child. But state lawmakers should do better. It's an investment that will pay off.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for more public support for preschool programs nationwide. Children who show up to kindergarten unprepared — unable to recognize letters and numbers up to 10 and to follow simple directions, for example — often continue to struggle for the rest of their academic career.
Science is starting to explain why and quantifying the linguistic disadvantages many lower-income children experience, including significantly less exposure to vocabulary during the brain's formative period. One study found a child of poor parents is exposed to 32 million fewer words by age 4 than a child raised by more affluent parents. David Lawrence Jr., a retired Miami Herald publisher who chairs the Children's Movement of Florida, saw what that meant in a lower-income Miami early learning classroom of 3- and 4-year-olds: Not one of the 21 children recognized the ears of a rabbit poking out of Old MacDonald's attire. Two children identified them as "cow."
Florida voters made sure this state was ahead of the curve, with nearly four out of five of the state's 4-year-olds taking part in the state's voluntary prekindergarten program that launched in 2005-06. But from the start, advocates have questioned the Legislature's implementation of the requirement, as curriculum decisions are left up to the private providers who make up most of the system. And for years, voluntary prekindergarten has clearly been underfunded.
The additional $100 a year per student increase, to $2,483, that the governor has proposed after three years of flat funding is still $194 less than the high of $2,677 in 2007-08. But even more sobering: It's $17 less than what the program's participants received for the inaugural 2005-06 year. Had the state just kept pace with inflation, the number would be $2,856.
The fact is that by shortchanging children on a relatively inexpensive investment, the state is shortchanging itself long-term. A provocative campaign launched by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national group of law enforcement officers and prosecutors, puts a simple point on it with the tag line, "I'm the guy you pay later." It's pushing to increase investment in preschool so that high school graduation rates will rise, decreasing the odds that those adults will turn to crime and society will bear the costs of incarceration and public safety.
Florida voters understood a decade ago that the better way is to invest early. Now the Legislature should find more money to ensure that promise is kept.