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Pre-K debate: quality, hours, teachers, busing
State lawmakers are trying again to enact a prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds starting next fall.
By Times Staff Writer
Published December 3, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Parents, teachers and early-childhood experts urged lawmakers Thursday to get it right this time and spend enough money for the high quality prekindergarten program voters demanded.
Their testimony before a joint Senate-House committee came as legislators take a second stab at enacting the will of voters who demanded a universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds starting next fall. Last spring Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the bill, saying it lacked sufficient teachers and training standards.
Some advocates now fear that lawmakers, with Bush's approval, will limit a pre-K program to three hours a day, not the four or six they say are needed to prepare children for a life of learning. Advocates also worry that the credentials of teachers could be phased in over an eight-year period and that the state won't put up money to bus 4-year-olds to classes.
"If children are able to go through a high quality program, the basic foundation for learning can be met. We know that," said the Rev. Donald Duncombe of West Palm Beach, who represents a statewide network of faith-based groups. He said the key question is "whether we're going to effectively use the dollars to make the sacrifice that's going to make a difference."
Jane Kuckel, a Lee County School Board member, said a pre-K program can't succeed unless the state provides money for buses, especially for the 20 percent of students from families where money and motivation are in short supply.
Without buses, Kuckel said, the state would make a mockery of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act by literally leaving thousands of children behind. The result would be, in effect, a free pre-K program for middle-class families who already can afford to pay for preschool care.
"If we don't transport them, they won't come," Kuckel said of poor families.
Karlene Lee-Martin, a nurse from Pembroke Pines, held her sleeping 3-year-old daughter, Nia, on her shoulder as she spoke. "I am asking you to look beyond the budget," she said. "This is our generation, the generation that is going to take care of us."
But in the Legislature, everything comes down to money.
Lawmakers hope to pass pre-K standards the week of Dec. 13, when a special session is expected. Those standards will show how much money lawmakers are willing to spend on the program.
No bill has surfaced yet, and key lawmakers are negotiating details in private.
Lawmakers are considering a plan that calls for only three hours of instruction a day. A pre-K advisory panel headed by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings recommended four hours, and Democrats wanted six hours to accommodate full-time working mothers.
Other sticking points involve the student-teacher ratio; the time needed to get a teacher with a bachelor's degree in every class; the level of oversight of pre-K programs; and the membership of a statewide advisory council.
The overarching issue is quality, which means different things to different people.
"It is now our job to define quality," said Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee. "There is science that tells us what quality is."
At a statewide conference of Florida school boards in Tampa, Jennings said she and Bush are not willing to water down the definition of quality.
"That hasn't happened and it won't happen," she said.
Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, said senators favor a pre-K program of 540 hours a year with flexibility for schools to set the schedule. The 540 hours would equate to three hours a day over a 180-day school year.
Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, a lead House negotiator on pre-K, said a six-hour program would not be considered.
After testifying, David Lawrence, chairman of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami, said he sensed an "immensely more positive" tone in the Capitol. But he said he felt a four-hour-a-day program was better than three, and like many who spoke, he said a teacher should be supervising no more than 10 children.
Karen Perkins of the Hillsborough County School Readiness Coalition shared Lawrence's cautious optimism.
"I don't think we're going to go backward," Perkins said. But meeting the goal of having every teacher with a bachelor's degree will take years, she said, because the state doesn't have enough trained teachers.
"A lot of voters probably thought it would be in a public school setting and every teacher would have a four-year degree," Perkins said. "I don't think that's how it will work out. But that doesn't mean it can't be high quality."
A recent study by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Resources lists Florida as one of 12 states on its "Dirty Dozen" list, with no state-funded pre-K programs.
The study said states are spending a total of $2.54-billion on pre-K. More than three-fifths of that total is in California, Georgia, New Jersey, New York and Texas.
PRE-K: THE ISSUES
Some major points of debate over Florida's voluntary program:
CLASS DAY: Three hours a day? Four? Six? It's the most expensive question in the debate because the biggest chunk of the program's cost is for personnel. Many advocates consider a three-hour day too short.
TEACHERS: All pre-K teachers would be required to be certified as a child development associate. That leaves open the question of whether every lead teacher should have a community college degree five years into the program, and a bachelor's after eight years.
RATIO: Oklahoma's ratio of one teacher per 10 students sets the standard. Florida lawmakers are considering one teacher per 18 students.