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Florida lawmakers throw support behind major pre-K reform bill

The 148-page bill would lead to a new ‘grading’ system for prekindergarten providers, so parents can better choose programs for their toddlers.
Victoria Arriaga, left, does a letter-matching activity during Priscilla Perez's pre-kindergarten class at West Tampa Elementary School. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers threw bipartisan support behind a bill Monday that would make major changes in how the state’s prekindergarten programs are measured for success and penalized if they fall short.

Senate Bill 1688, sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, would measure programs’ effectiveness in a way that combines children’s progress made over the course of the program with their test scores at the end of pre-K, plus the quality of the children’s interactions with teachers.

While early childhood education used to be thought of as babysitting, research has shown that a child’s first years of education can have an impact on their success for the rest of their lives.

Pre-K is “essential,” Harrel told the Senate Education Committee. “It is one of the most important things we do in brain development.”

Currently, pre-K providers’ effectiveness is determined by how their students perform on a computerized test when they first start kindergarten — a whole summer after they finished pre-K. Teachers and providers have long complained it was an unfair metric that also made their performance data perpetually behind, making it difficult for them to quickly solve any issues with their programs.

Additionally, the bill requires more training for pre-K teachers and sets up a way for providers to be graded from "A" to "F" so parents can more easily decipher which programs are top-notch. Programs receiving high grades will be eligible for extra funding.

Those proposals proved to be the most controversial, as several speakers in the committee, including a representative from the Foundation for Florida’s Future, which counts former Gov. Jeb Bush as a board member, wondered if the grading system would be overly punitive.

Kids would also take assessments three times per school year from pre-K through third grade to measure their growth, which some said sounds like high-stakes testing for toddlers.

“Labeling a preschooler as having a ‘substantial deficiency in early literacy’ is ludicrous,” said Mindy Gould, who represents the Miami-Dade County Council of PTAs. “Preschoolers learn through play ... please remember not all children are great test-takers, especially at such an early age.”

But Harrell countered that the testing is aimed at comparing pre-K programs around the state, rather than having students’ success hinge on the results.

“We’re measuring for things such as dyslexia in kindergarten so we can get a kid into the right program to start with,” she said. “It’s a matter of knowing where they start ... then following that child to make sure they’re on the right course.”

Florida offers prekindergarten for free to all 4-year-olds, under the program called Voluntary Prekindergarten, where mostly private childcare facilities are paid on a per-student basis by the state to teach the toddlers early skills.

But while students’ access to the program is among the best nationally, the quality of the education they receive in Florida has fallen below many other states for years. A report released by the Florida Department of Education last summer showed that only 42 percent of 4-year-olds who participated in the prekindergarten program were determined to be ready for kindergarten, a statistic that Gov. Ron DeSantis has called “not defensible.”

RELATED: Florida pre-k issues leave lawmakers with long to-do list

One of the reasons behind these issues was a lack of teeth for pre-K providers whose programs left much to be desired. Because of changes in accountability metrics over time, there have been childcare centers left on probation status since 2013 without penalties.

This bill would give two years for any provider whose metrics fall behind to take corrective action before it would lose funding.

Lindsay Carson, CEO of the Early Coalition of Pinellas County, which monitors pre-K programs locally, called the current accountability framework “weak." She said the bill provides a much better way for teachers and providers to know how to improve.

“This has the opportunity to be transformative legislation,” she said.

Monday’s hearing was the first vote on the 148-page bill, which has two more committee stops. Even though several lawmakers of both parties said they had concerns about the testing or the grades for providers, the entire committee voted in favor, saying they hoped to see tweaks as the bill moves.

“This is an issue that’s been around for a long time,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. “A lot of the practitioners have often wondered, ‘Why do we have such bullish accountability system in K-12 ... but what are the doing about pre-K?’”

A similar House version of the bill is also scheduled for its first hearing on Tuesday. It’s sponsored by Reps. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, and Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, who is also the CEO of the Children’s Movement of Florida, a South Florida nonprofit that advocates for young kids.

“After almost 15 years, we will finally have the ability to know which pre-K programs are truly serving our children," Aloupis said.

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