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A Times Editorial
Florida's leaders - including the new Senate president and House speaker - will be judged by the outcome of the special session on prekindergarten.
The Florida Legislature's new presiding officers are taking understandable pride in their agreement to jointly call their first special session next week. But harmony won't mean much if the end result is to cheat 4-year-olds out of a meaningful prekindergarten experience.
That's where the Legislature is heading. Two years after voters mandated a voluntary pre-K program for all 4-year-olds, Florida is trying to do as little as possible. The plan that Senate President Tom Lee and House Speaker Allan Bense appear to be endorsing for the special session would make pre-K little more than a three-hour-a-day babysitting venture. Is this the legacy that Lee and Bense want to leave?
Look at kindergarten for a comparison. In Florida, kindergarten is for 5-year-olds and also is voluntary. But few families pass up the opportunity and understandably so. Kindergartens offer a rich variety of early learning experiences. They are part of every public elementary school, taught by instructors with college degrees. Each day is six hours long, and transportation is provided for children who live too far from the school.
Look at the prekindergarten that was recommended by a task force run by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. The task force said the single most important factor is the quality of the teacher, and it recommended that all pre-K teachers have college degrees. It also called for a six-hour day, a 10-to-1 ratio of children to teaching adults and oversight by the state Department of Education.
Look at neighboring Georgia, whose pre-kindergarten experts insisted that Florida set the standards even higher than they did. Georgia spends $3,871 per child on a prekindergarten that offers six-hour days, teachers with at least associate's degrees, and transportation for children who need it. "If you're going to water down a program and shorten it, you're kidding yourself," Yale University researcher Walter Gilliam told the Tallahassee Democrat. "It's possible to cut corners, but you can't cut them all."
Look at the very plan that Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Department of Education sold voters in 2002. They advised voters that pre-K would cost $4,320 a student and explained: "In the long run this investment should save the state millions of dollars that otherwise would go to remedial education, the criminal justice system and social services." But Bush now appears ready to sign off on a $2,000-a-student economy model, less than half what he promised.
Just last week, the governor was boasting about $2.9-billion in new state revenue for the coming fiscal year, an amount he deemed so large he was proposing a new business tax break. In future years, the state also may begin to receive new proceeds from slot machines in South Florida, and those revenues are estimated to be $438-million in the first year. A quality prekindergarten plan only would require a fraction of that new revenue. Are 4-year-olds not worth it?
Lee and Bense are not the only leaders whose actions will be judged by this upcoming session. Jennings, who may seek the governor's office in 2006, brings considerable expertise and passion to the issue of early learning. As a Senate president, she was responsible for many of the standards that already exist for such programs for poor children. If she can't persuade lawmakers to enact the very kind of quality prekindergarten that she and Bush promised voters, how can she expect them to view her as an effective political leader?
Leadership is about more than calling lawmakers to work. It's about setting ambitious goals and demanding they be met. That's the least Lee and Bense can do for 4-year-olds.
[Last modified December 7, 2004, 00:47:11]