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Group pushing for free preschool across state

Teachers and parents have gathered 112,000 signatures in a drive to offer free, universal preschool for Florida's 4-year-olds.

Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas initiated the petition drive in December.

Penelas needs 500,000 signatures for the measure to be included as a referendum on the November ballot.

The proposed program would be phased in by 2005, which the mayor says would allow the Legislature time to apportion funds for the program's $250-million budget.

"Governor Bush is the education governor," Penelas said, "so this is definitely a nonpartisan issue."

Penelas has sought help from the Florida Education Association, the PTA, teacher unions, and other grass-roots organizations to circulate petitions and propel the movement.

Melissa Tucker, of Miami Lakes, has sent two of her children to the preschool program at Miami Lakes Elementary School. She was quick to sign the mayor's petition when it was circulated in her children's school.

According to Tucker, her 6-year-old son Bruce is now significantly ahead of the other kids who didn't have the same opportunity.

"Kids who attend a good preschool program acquire the discipline of the school day," Tucker said. "They learn sound concepts, letters, numbers. They're ready to learn and they're used to dealing with their peers."

Educators have long argued that children who attend preschool do better in later years than those who stay home and often languish in front of TV sets during critical years in their development.

"I know what my teachers tell me," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the Florida Education Association. "Some children come into the classroom who've had no experience with books. They don't know how to open a book one way or another. They don't know colors or numbers."

Children who enter the first grade lacking basic concepts start to fall behind in a pattern that becomes difficult to reverse with crowded schools and burdened teachers, Dinnen said.

"Florida is reluctant to spend money on its children," Dinnen said. "But we'll just keep repeating the same story _ we won't have an economically viable state if we don't educate our children."

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