Bill to reform Florida’s pre-k program nears death in Legislature

Despite broad support for the bill, it appears to have fallen victim to the ticking clock of the legislative session.
Summer Young walks with her son Justin (age 4) (center) and his classmate Emily Sasser during a pre-k class function at Centennial Elementary School. Photo taken Thursday 10/7/04.
Summer Young walks with her son Justin (age 4) (center) and his classmate Emily Sasser during a pre-k class function at Centennial Elementary School. Photo taken Thursday 10/7/04. [ MCDUFFIE, DAN | St. Petersburg Times ]
Published March 11, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Despite bipartisan support for what backers said were much-needed reforms to a program that teaches more than 170,000 toddlers each year, a bill that would overhaul Florida’s pre-kindergarten program appears to be near death in the state Legislature.

It passed the House on Monday, with a rallying cry from one of its sponsors, Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, who urged House members to ask Senators to move the bill along.

He referenced the many children who participate in the state-funded prekindergarten program who were assessed as not being ready for kindergarten annually.

"If we do not get this bill to the governor's desk, we will need to look at those 86,000 kids ... and we will need to apologize," he said.

The Senate bill was never heard in its final committee, which is not scheduled to take it up before the regular legislative session ends Friday.

"If we have bills stuck in committees ... there's very little chance we'll get back to them," said Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "I'm sure there are some good ideas in that bill but everything can't get done in one year."

Technically, no bill is dead until the session adjourns. But there aren’t many avenues left for its passage.

The nearly 200-page bill would make sweeping changes to Florida's prekindergarten program, which is offered for free to all 4-year-olds for three hours per day. But while Florida's program ranks high in the universal access it provides to families, when compared to other states, the quality of education the children receive greatly varies depending on where they attend.

Research has shown that children's early education is critical to their developing brains.

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

The bill would impose more rigorous standards on providers, which are mostly private pre-K centers around the state. It would create a new assessment to measures toddlers’ progress from kindergarten through third grade, and even identify early on if they have dyslexia.

The bill’s other House sponsor, Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, spoke on the floor about how it takes about a year for pre-K providers to be notified that their program is failing. In the meantime, more kids cycle through.

“Before a child is 6, months matter,” Grall said, calling the current accountability system “broken.”

To that end, the bill would establish a clear rating system, from "unsatisfactory" to "excellent," that families could rely upon when choosing a preschool. An A-F grading system initially appeared in the bill, but was removed amid fierce opposition.

It would also provide an extra funding boost to the highest-rated programs, and require centers that do not meet minimum standards to implement an improvement plan and, if they don't shape up, they could be removed from the state-funded program for two to five years.

Lindsay Carson, chief executive officer at the Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas County, which monitors the pre-K program locally, said she was disappointed to see the bill faltering.

"This is transformational legislation," she said. "Every year we wait is another year of kids (in the program) ... I think the taxpayers deserve to see accountability, too."

Evelio Torres, who heads the early learning coalition for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, said he’s been talking on conference calls with other coalition leaders to talk about the bill.

"We hope that it'll be smoother next year," he said. "I hope no one gives up on this bill."

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.