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Legislature 2004

Compromise puts pre-K bill nearer to approval

However, Gov. Bush said he plans to veto the measure, saying it falls short of what voters want.

By ANITA KUMAR and LUCY MORGAN
Published April 29, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Two days before the end of the legislative session, the House and Senate were on the verge of a deal to create a program to provide prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds.

The compromise came late Wednesday night when House leaders agreed to accept the Senate's version of the plan. It took several representatives by surprise, including bill sponsor Gustavo Barreiro, R-Miami Beach.

While he and some other House Republicans objected, the measure appeared headed for passage as part of a deal with the Senate.

"I think the House will pass it," Senate President Jim King said late Wednesday. "This is the first step. We hope to gather data and will be ready to revisit it if it's not right."

Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday said he is prepared to veto the measure because it appeared to fall short of what voters wanted when they approved a constitutional amendment. He said it would be better to return to the issue next year.

Lawmakers won't appropriate money for the effort this year.

King, R-Jacksonville, said he was not sure what the governor would do. Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj said Wednesday night that the governor's position on the issue hadn't changed.

A constitutional amendment voters approved two years ago requires the state to offer a "high-quality prekindergarten learning opportunity" to tens of thousands of 4-year-olds by 2005.

But legislators and early-learning advocates disagree about what "high quality" means.

Bush's task force recommended high standards: All teachers should be credentialed. Teachers would be responsible for no more than 10 students. Anyone who offered a program must seek accreditation. Children would be in class six hours a day.

But lawmakers, worried about costs, pulled back.

The Senate bill (SB 3036) calls for children to be in class three hours a day; a $7-million pilot summer program for nine school districts, including Hillsborough and Pasco counties, to be implemented; and the cost of instruction to be $2,500 per child - less than Bush wants.

A child who turns 4 on or before Sept. 1 of each school year would be given a voucher to attend an eligible public or private prekindergarten program.

Aimed at giving young children a head start on school, prekindergarten attendance is voluntary. But education officials estimate about 70 percent, or 150,000, of the state's 4-year-olds will enroll in fall 2005.

The House passed its version (HB 821) along party lines on a 76-39 vote early Wednesday afternoon. About five hours later, the Senate passed the House bill 39-0 - but added their language to the proposal.

Florida will be the second state in the nation after Georgia to offer it. But Florida's will be the largest in the nation.

The state is required to pay for it without taking money from other areas.

Early estimates pegged the cost at less than $300-million. The state's official estimate was $425-million to $650-million.

Amendment backers say they estimate it will be in the $300-million to $350-million range. But even if lawmakers agree on a compromise, they won't fund it until next year.

[Last modified April 29, 2004, 01:35:43]


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