Critics pan first pre-K plan

Lawmakers say the plan is a good start; critics say it won't provide the high-quality program voters wanted.

Published December 9, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Florida legislators on Wednesday proposed a new statewide learning program for 4-year-olds, but early childhood advocates expressed strong disappointment with its main features.

A three-hour school day and a ratio of one teacher for every 18 students will not produce the high-quality program voters approved, critics said, repeating arguments they made at a legislative workshop last week.

Legislators called the plan a starting point for a weeklong special legislative session that begins next Monday. Most pre-kindergarten programs would be run by private child-care centers or religious groups.

Lawmakers said their proposal has high standards, such as a goal of having one teacher with a college degree in every pre-kindergarten classroom eight years from now.

"You don't measure the success of a pre-K program by the number of hours," said Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, one of a handful of lawmakers who wrote the proposal. "This is not a day-care program. This is an instructional program, a learning environment."

Carlton pointed to principles in the plan such as qualifications and background checks on teachers and a system to measure learning.

That did not satisfy advocates who define quality as a minimum of four hours of daily instruction and a maximum of 10 students per teacher.

A classroom with one teacher and 18 4-year-olds is "basically crowd control," said Janet Chapman, executive director of the Pinellas County School Readiness Coalition.

Most high-quality pre-K centers already exceed the Legislature's new standards, said Dave McGerald, executive director of Hillsborough's School Readiness Coalition.

"Essentially, we haven't changed anything," McGerald said. "The words have changed, but the outcome is not going to be any different than what we already have. We're just fooling ourselves if we think this will change the way we prepare young people for kindergarten."

The 93-page proposal was presented by Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, both of whom emphasized it was a first step. Lawmakers said they could not place a price tag on the program until they know how many children will enroll, but estimated first-year costs at up to $400-million.

Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the Legislature's first plan earlier this year because he said it did not meet the high quality voters demanded when they amended the Constitution in 2002 to create the program.

Bush called the new plan a "good starting point" and said he wants to work with lawmakers "to create a quality program."

Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who led the campaign to pass the pre-K amendment, said the Legislature's plan falls short.

"We finally have an opportunity to be leading the nation on an education issue and we're blowing the opportunity," said Penelas, a Democrat.

At the outset, pre-K classes could be staffed by teachers with a child development associate credential who must pass a two-hour course in literacy.

The bill also requires a 300-hour summertime pre-K program with a 10-1 student-teacher ratio. School districts must offer the summer program.

The three-hour day is intended to supplement subsidized care for low-income families. Lawmakers say about 60,000 4-year-olds statewide go to subsidized preschool several hours a day.

Lee, whose son turns 4 next year, said he would happily place his child in a program run under the Legislature's terms. The key is not how many hours 4-year-olds spend in class, he said, but whether teachers are preparing the children for kindergarten.

Another controversial part of the bill would prevent school districts from operating school-year pre-K programs unless they comply with Florida's voter-approved class-size amendment.

Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Candy Olson said the district, Florida's third-largest, has no space to house pre-K students.

Steve Swartzel, a lobbyist for the Pinellas school district, which is not growing as fast as most urban areas, said the impact is not yet clear.

Pasco County complies with the class-size limits, but that is based on money provided year to year, said the county's assistant superintendent for administration, Bob Dorn.

"Most of your rural districts will qualify," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "Urban and high-growth districts will not qualify at this time, simply because they are getting more students than they can build classrooms for today without a pre-K (program)."

Florida's pre-K experience is being watched closely by advocates across the country.

Libby Doggett, executive director of the Trust for Early Education, said the phase-in of teachers with college degrees is a good step but she criticized the student-teacher ratio.

"There are a number of programs that have much higher quality," Doggett said. "When Florida has this, they will not be a national model, and they will not have their children prepared for kindergarten, which was the whole point."

Times staff writer Monique Fields contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.