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GOP balks at pre-K demands
Reality stands in the way of all the provisions advocates seek for prekindergarten, Republican leaders say.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published December 14, 2004
TALLAHASSEE - Early childhood advocates hammered away at the Republican proposal for universal pre-kindergarten Monday but had limited success on the first day of a special legislative session.
GOP leaders agreed that more than one adult should supervise 18 4-year-olds, something Republican Gov. Jeb Bush insisted on.
"We will get to no more than 10 students per adult in the classroom," said Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, who cowrote the prekindergarten bill.
But they stopped short of other demands that critics suggested would meet the "high quality" standard voters approved, such as longer days and better teacher credentials.
Reality gets in the way, legislative leaders said: Florida does not have enough money, classroom space or certified teachers with bachelor's degrees to do everything everyone wants.
"We are not completely there yet. We know that," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, and a member of the PreK-12 Committee. But "it looks like we've got another Kum Ba Ya bill."
Lawmakers are taking a second stab at creating a prekindergarten program that voters mandated should start in August. Bush vetoed their first try in the spring because he said it was not a high-quality program.
The bill that House and Senate leaders unveiled last week was greeted by tough criticism. But any changes must come quickly because most committee hearings are set to end by Wednesday.
Democrats were not heartened, even after Republicans said they would keep trying to improve the program in the coming years by including "aspirational goals" in the bill.
"This is a good first step," said Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, also on the PreK-12 Committee. "Unfortunately, when you're talking about children, good first steps don't count because you've only got one chance to get it right."
He and others did not want to leave it to future lawmakers to "fix" the program if it doesn't work as planned. That's not fair to children, they said, and it doesn't guarantee changes would come.
Rep. Lorrane Ausley, D-Tallahassee, tried to amend the bill so that the "aspirational goal" of requiring teachers to have a bachelor's degree by 2013 would be required.
The effort failed in the PreK-12 Committee, which passed the bill unchanged 6-3 in a party-line vote.
"The work force does not currently exist in the state of Florida," and it might not five or eight years from now, said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka. "I think the aspirational language is where we should begin recognizing the uncertainties the future might hold."
The governor seemed to agree.
"In the policy world, you can live in Nirvana land, where it is all optimum and all perfect, or you can live in the real world," Bush said. "I think the real world requires us to say most of the people, moms and dads who take advantage of this, are going to take advantage of it in existing child care facilities."
Ausley, who sits on the two other committees that will hear the bill, said she would continue to pressure the Republicans. "This is not an area where we can afford to not do this right," she said.
Senate Democrats had similar concerns, which they aired during an hourlong meeting with the bill's Senate sponsor, Sarasota Republican Lisa Carlton.
Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, told Carlton the bill made progress on some issues, but it still fell short of high quality. She acknowledged that consensus was building on changing the teacher-student ratio, so she honed in on the length of the prekindergarten day.
"I feel that we have to lay a solid foundation here," Rich said. "What I'm hoping is that there can still be some movement toward real parental choice."
That meant three or six hours.
Carlton said creative options might have been possible if the Legislature, not voters, devised the program. "We have to build a program that is universal and that is equal across the state," Carlton said.
Democrats filed two amendments for today's hearing. One would require two adults in a prekindergarten classroom with more than 10 students. The other would increase instructional hours from 540 over 180 days to 720 hours.
Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who will chair the hearing, expects the bill will be a "freight train" allowing few changes that Carlton and Goodlette do not know of in advance.
Early childhood education advocates said they hope to change some technical issues such as getting a set definition of "instruction" and firming up language to prevent fraud by providers.
They planned to continue to speak on class length, teacher credentials and other issues, too.
"I think the general tenor of what you heard was, progress has been made," said Jon C. Moyle Jr. of the Palm Beach Children's Services Council. "But there is still room to make additional progress."
- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org