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Florida Department of Education targets prekindergarten improvements

Officials seek to revamp the program established by voters in 2002.
Summer Young (CQ) walks with her son Justin (CQ) (age 4) (center) and his classmate Emily Sasser (CQ by Young) during a pre K class function at Centennial Elementary School. Photo taken Thursday 10/7/04.
Published Jul. 18

Florida education department officials are taking steps to bolster the state-funded Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) program and turn it into the “truly really desired option” for early education, just two months after Gov. Ron DeSantis decried low readiness levels of children emerging from the system.

In a report to the State Board of Education, department chief of staff Alex Kelly said the staff has begun drafting a rule to incorporate learning gains into the readiness formula, similar to the one used for K-12 school accountability.

“Not every school has an equal starting point,” Kelly said, saying the proposal would come to the board in August.

The department also is developing a new funding model for the VPK program, in accordance with a legislative request that included an Oct. 1 deadline. It additionally has convened a new advisory council, funded by a federal grant, to help redesign the state’s approach to prekindergarten and early education.

Since voters mandated the state-funded pre-k system in 2002, the state has earned praise for accessibility to the program. Nearly 8 in 10 four-year-olds participate in VPK, which largely operates through private schools and centers.

At the same time, though, national experts have rated Florida’s system as poor in quality and funding, putting it near the bottom of all states that have such offerings. See the National Institute for Early Education Research’s most recent review of Florida for added details.

State lawmakers frequently have spoken of the need to improve the state’s approach, noting that children with a strong education foundation in the early years can find more success in the rest of their schooling. In 2015, for instance, some proposed expanding kindergarten to include four-year-olds.

Many of the ideas garnered more sentiment than action, though. Funding has gone down per student, when adjusted for inflation.

Kelly said the department, and the Governor’s Office, are committed to seeing the effort through.

“The bottom line goal is how can we get funding and resources before students, to get them access to great early learning programs,” he told the board, which signaled support for the initiative.

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