TALLAHASSEE — On a recent day at Celebration Baptist Kinderschool, the four-year-olds gathered with their legs criss-crossed on their multi-colored carpet to listen to a book about bats.
“What’s that big word we learned?” the teacher asked, referencing a previous lesson about owls.
“Nocturnal!” the toddlers shouted back.
At another preschool, a teacher had abruptly quit her job because of severe health concerns. In early education, where teaching staff is already scarce, this left her colleagues to combine kindergarten and pre-k kids into one large class where they did their best to teach the 4-year-olds their numbers while the 5-year-old kindergartners practiced cursive.
Essentially, it was a typical day for Florida’s preschools for the state’s 4-year-olds, all of whom are entitled to free pre-k paid for by the state under the Voluntary Prekindergarten program. Yet when compared to other states, Florida has a problem with ensuring the quality of education it offers its youngest citizens.
Gov. Ron DeSantis sounded the alarm this summer when the state released test results showing 42 percent of toddlers who participated in the program were not ready for kindergarten, a number not far off from previous years. He said the results were “not defensible” and called upon the Florida Department of Education to develop an improvement plan.
According to a 2018 analysis of states’ preschool programs done by Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, Florida only meets two out ten national “quality standards" for its program. Florida does not require its pre-k teachers to have bachelor’s degrees, for example.
Research shows that children’s early education is key to their success for the rest of their lives. As early as kindergarten, some students have already developed better learning abilities and social skills than others, and that gap can persist for their entire educational careers and beyond.
Despite its importance, pre-k has not historically received much of the education policy spotlight in the state Legislature compared to K-12 or higher education — and it definitely receives less funding.
But early education advocates are hopeful that the 2020 legislative session, which officially begins in January, will change that.
As lawmakers have gathered for committee meetings this fall, they have begun initial discussions about potential policy and funding changes for pre-k providers, most of which are private schools that accept voluntary prekindergarten funding on a per-student basis.
“For years we thought about early education as babysitting, and we know now it’s so much more,” said Lindsay Carson, chief executive officer at the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, which monitors the program locally. “We need to make sure our children have a good experience that’s going to spark curiosity.”
The meaning of success
The first hurdle lawmakers will likely have to address is the disagreement on how to measure students’ success.
The assessment scores DeSantis referenced were from the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener, a test that all students enrolled in kindergarten in public schools take, typically weeks after school begins. The state then assigns the students’ former schools a score based on their performance.
But many early childhood providers have said the measurement is unreliable.
For one, students forget much of what they’ve learned during the summer, said Luisa Martin-Humes, the owner and director of First Steps Prep, a preschool in Tallahassee that teaches prekindergarten students.
“Our contract depends on the rate," she said. "It’s not fair for them and it’s not fair for the results to reflect on us.”
Rep. Vance Aloupis, a Republican from Miami who’s a leading voice on early education policy in the Legislature, thinks the test should more heavily weigh students’ gains rather than blanket benchmarks. He argues that the scores are substantially influenced by how much kids’ parents read and talk to them at home, creating unfair advantages for some schools depending on students’ home lives.
“The quality of the program, the experience the child is having outside the classroom, all of that is magnified (for young kids),” Aloupis said.
No matter how the assessment may be changed, most early education advocates agree that to have a better quality program, the state needs to provide more money.
When Florida created universal pre-k in 2002, the state gave schools $2,500 per child. This year, the state gave schools $2,437.
That decrease, before inflation is considered, has left many Voluntary Prekindergarten providers with hardly any funds to spare.
Martin-Humes said she helps teach the prekindergarten class during the day and saves her administrative duties for nights and weekends because she can’t afford to hire more staff.
Because the funding levels are so low, pre-k teacher pay has also stayed at rock bottom — the average is around $9.70 per hour, typically without benefits. That pay, coupled with low unemployment, has created a workforce shortage as preschools compete with places like Starbucks and Walmart for the wages they’re able to offer.
“Essentially, we have market failure,” Carson, the Pinellas CEO, said.
Evelio Torres, who heads the early learning coalition for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, said there’s a myriad of issues the Legislature could choose to tackle first, ranging from funding to accountability.
In South Florida, he’s seen childcare centers that were forced to close because of fraudulent billing practices re-open under a new name, a sign that there needs to be better regulation of providers accepting state funding, he said.
Plus, while voluntary prekindergarten is free to all 4-year-olds, the instruction only lasts for three hours each day, leaving working parents who need additional childcare to either pay out-of-pocket or apply for state funding for low-income families under a program called School Readiness. The waiting list for that program is tens of thousands of names long.
“This is one of those challenges: what do you do first?” Torres asked. “Do you invest more in quality and not worry about the waiting list, or do you put more money into creating more access to kids?"
Aloupis says the answer is “all of the above."
“We’ve always been nibbling around the margins,” he said. “But the system needs transformational change. It has to."