TAMPA - The new constitutional amendment guaranteeing free prekindergarten for Florida's 4-year-olds is looking more complicated and expensive than when voters approved it last year.
Private day care providers are worried they could be run out of business. Teacher qualifications are up for debate. Cost estimates (it could cost as much as $657-million in federal and state dollars) are running higher than official estimates during the campaign.
The Florida Department of Education likely will oversee prekindergarten, so the state would have to expand its K-20 focus to a system that covers everything from infants through graduate students.
Meeting in Tampa, the Universal Prekindergarten Education Advisory Council wrestled with some of those issues Wednesday. The council is expected to make a series of recommendations to the state Board of Education later this month.
"Then it's up to the Board of Education and the Legislature, and they can do whatever they want," said Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, who heads the council. "We're just trying to thrash through the first group of potholes."
Council members agreed on several key points Wednesday. Prekindergarten will be run by the Department of Education. It will be administered by a chancellor, who will be on equal footing with the three chancellors overseeing Florida's public schools, community colleges and universities. And the prekindergarten chancellor might work with an advisory board patterned after the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's universities.
"We need someone on the chancellor level," said council member H.G. "Butch" Cronon, a retired AT&T executive who now is president of a preschool in Orlando. "That gives you a voice at the same level."
The council also agreed that a prekindergarten program should include four hours a day of instructional time. That probably would be fit into a six-hour school day, including lunch, naps and play time.
One local preschool operator told council members she fears the new rules and regulations will end up "smothering the small, privately owned preschools."
Janeen Stokes of Gabrielle's Glen in Temple Terrace said she thinks the decisionmakers mean well, but have not thought through the details. For instance, if the state does not provide transportation to private preschools, it would place them at a disadvantage. If the teacher qualifications are set too high, it could be a financial burden to both teachers and the schools.
Public schools chancellor James Warford tried to allay those fears.
"Yes, there are some scars in the past in this discussion on both sides," he said. "We've got to learn from that and move forward."
During last year's campaign, the cost for the prekindergarten initiative was estimated at between $425-million and $650-million.
Newer estimates cover a wide range, and depend on the length of the school day, the qualifications required of the teachers and the number of children in the program.
The state figures roughly 151,000 children statewide will take advantage of the free prekindergarten when it is implemented in 2005. Florida now has more than 61,000 4-year-olds in state and federal prekindergarten programs.