A nascent effort to focus Florida's Legislature on improving the lives of children has passed its first major test. The 2011 priorities unveiled Wednesday by the so-called "Milk Party" are pragmatic, targeted and, perhaps most importantly, not terribly expensive. Gov.-elect Rick Scott and legislators looking at a $3.5 billion budget hole in the coming year will be wary of new investments. But spending more on the state's youngest residents to help ensure they become productive citizens isn't just a warm and fuzzy proposition. It makes good economic sense, long- and short-term.
Census figures released this week are a reminder of the harsh reality for Florida children. Nearly 1 in 5 lives in poverty, stacking the odds against success. But the Children's Movement of Florida, a bipartisan effort launched this year by more than two dozen well-connected Floridians, is aimed at ensuring that such a disadvantage is not predictive. The group aims to realign state priorities year-by-year to give children a better chance at being successful adults.
The first pitch: Spend about $300 million in 2011-12 on five investments. Most of that money will be needed for just two initiatives: $182.8 million in state matching money to provide 300,000 more low-income children with health insurance, and $89.2 million to significantly upgrade the state's five-year-old voluntary prekindergarten program by encouraging better teacher training and curriculum.
The ideas are based in the science of childhood development. Healthy children show up at school better prepared to learn, and children who receive regular medical care are far less likely to die than uninsured children. Studies also show that children who obtain a quality pre-K education are more likely to graduate high school.
But that research hasn't been enough in the past to persuade the Republican-led Legislature on either issue. Lawmakers — even before the national partisan debate over health care reform — have balked at taking full advantage of the state-federal child health insurance program, leaving Florida with the second highest percentage of uninsured children in the country. Nor have they been willing to increase standards for voluntary pre-K.
That's shortsighted. Florida's uninsured children — at least 548,000 — can still show up in emergency rooms or elsewhere and receive expensive care that often ends up paid for by taxpayers. The Children's Movement's solution: Ante up $182.8 million in state funds to cover 300,000 more children, drawing down $271 million more in federal dollars that will flow directly into the state's health care industry.
Investing more in the education of 4-year-olds will pay long-term dividends for the state's education system. The current pre-K system is the antithesis of the high-quality system voters wanted: Just 20 percent of teachers have bachelor's degrees and just 5 percent have associate's degrees — meaning most children are being taught by someone with little or no formal training in teaching.
The Children's Movement proposes higher reimbursement rates for providers who hire college graduates, and scholarships and professional development for pre-K teachers. It also recommends requiring a research-based curriculum and improved accountability for private providers through testing and other assessments.
None of these proposals are particularly new, but the packaging and grass-roots effort is different. So far the Milk Party is living up to its pledge to offer commonsense, bite-sized solutions for improving children's lives. State legislators and Gov.-elect Scott should embrace those proposals as a smart investment in a better Florida.