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Prekindergarten, early education get limelight from House committee

Gov. Ron DeSantis also had set a priority of getting more youngsters ready for kindergarten.

The Florida House made clear Tuesday that prekindergarten and early education will receive heavy attention in the coming legislative session, as the state aims to better prepare its children for kindergarten and beyond.

“This is where it starts. It starts with early learning,” Education Committee chairwoman Rep. Jennifer Sullivan said to introduce her panel’s two-hour workshop.

Prekindergarten should put youngsters on a track for success, Sullivan remarked. “Are we doing that? That is the question that faces us today.”

The committee’s conversation with experts from around the state came four months after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared the issue as a top priority, saying too many four-year-olds were showing up unready. In August, the Florida Board of Education also tackled the topic, altering the formula for rating preschools to include learning gains.

State education officials said they also were looking at other possible changes to the system, which has not received strong reviews from national analysts.

On Tuesday, the lawmakers heard reports on how the model currently looks, as well as commentary from providers about how it might be better.

Among the things they learned was that the system needs a cash infusion, so centers can afford to pay and train their teachers, and provide the best possible services to their students. They heard about the need to support families who cannot afford the “wraparound” services that are not covered by the funding for the daily three hours of Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK).

And they repeatedly were reminded that, more than academics and testing, preschool is about play, collaboration, and other social and emotional lessons.

“At that age, it’s hard to be nice to your friends,” provider Lisa Brooks told the panel. “It’s hard to recognize your hands are not for hitting.”

For their part, lawmakers had several questions of their own.

Rep. Randy Fine wanted to know why the state regularly has about 25 percent of four-year-olds not participating in VPK, and what could be done to improve that rate. Rep. Ralph Massullo wondered whether the state had any information showing that children who completed VPK perform better in K-12 schooling than those who did not take the program.

Office of Early Learning director Shan Goff, recently reappointed to the post she also held about five years ago, said she was digging into data for answers. She said she hoped to have good information after the next round of kindergarten readiness ratings come out later this fall.

Rep. Vance Aloupis, who ran for the state House to press for early education improvements, reminded his colleagues that VPK “is not a silver bullet,” and that children come to school with varied skill levels. He said he wanted to revisit the rating formula to incorporate growth and gains more heavily, saying the State Board’s placing the level at 10 percent was “woefully insignificant.”

Sullivan, meanwhile, suggested the state should review when it assesses children’s abilities for preschool ratings and kindergarten readiness. She contended that conducting the evaluations a few weeks into kindergarten is unfair to the preschool providers and to the children, who might have forgotten what they learned.

If the assessments take place before leaving VPK, Sullivan added, it would be easier to know how children who wind up in private schools for kindergarten are doing, too.

As the workshop ended, Sullivan encouraged committee members to visit schools, including preschools, to prepare for future discussions. She stressed that early learning will be a hot topic, with legislation likely.

See the committee’s early education presentation for more information.

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