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The Legislature approves a program for 4-year-olds that Gov. Bush says he'll sign but that most agree needs fixes.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published December 17, 2004
Who is eligible for the state's pre-kindergarten program?
Any Florida resident who is 4 years old on or before Sept. 1. That child remains eligible until the beginning of the school year for which he or she may enroll in public school kindergarten.
How many children are affected and how much will this cost?
No one knows for sure, but lawmakers think about 150,000 children will participate at an annual cost of about $400-million in tax dollars.
Will parents pay anything?
No, participation is free.
Does my child have to participate?
No, it's voluntary.
How does a parent enroll a child in the program?
Applications are not ready yet. When they are, parents will have to apply through their local early learning coalitions, which currently are called school readiness coalitions. If you can't find the number in the phone book, local school districts should have contact information.
Is there a set time of day that pre-K will be offered?
No. It can occur at any time of day, depending on the provider.
Why is Florida spending so much money?
Studies show that 4-year-olds enrolled in quality prekindergarten programs do better throughout their education years and into adulthood. Studies have shown that taxpayers can get a return of about $17 for every $1 spent on prekindergarten education.
Can 4-year-olds attend their neighborhood elementary school?
Probably not. Lawmakers say most public schools, particularly in fast-growing areas, are struggling to reduce class sizes to meet a constitutional amendment passed in 2002 and do not have room for prekindergarten classes. Only if the school meets the class-size requirements may it consider offering the prekindergarten program.
So where will they go?
One option is a shorter summer school program. It would last 300 hours rather than 540, but all teachers would have bachelor's degrees. The public schools must provide this program, and space is not an issue because schools are not used heavily in the summer.
But what if we're more interested in a school-year program?
The state will rely on schools run by private providers, including those run by religious organizations.
Does that violate the separation of church and state?
Critics say it does, and warn that the program could be undermined if the Florida Supreme Court finds that it violates a provision in the state Constitution prohibiting the use of tax money on religious institutions. Lawmakers and the governor, however, say the program merely offers parents the choice of secular or religious education and does not violate the Constitution.
Can a school turn away a child who wants to enroll?
Yes. The bill states that providers may "determine whether to admit any child." It makes clear that a school may not refuse children under certain federal antidiscrimination guidelines, but those refer to race, color and national origin only. The only program that is required to accept all applicants is the public school summer prekindergarten.
Why do critics say the program falls short of the high-quality standards the state Constitution demands?
Mostly because the school day is limited to three hours and teachers are not required to have a bachelor's degree. They also worry that schools are not required to choose from a preapproved list of curricula, so they might use something that is not proven effective for young children.
Who gets the money, the parents or the schools?
The state will pay schools directly based on estimated enrollment.
So how will parents know if their child's preschool is good enough?
The state Department of Education will develop a screening test that assesses children's ability to recognize sounds and letters, and to perform several other skills associated with kindergarten readiness. Parents will have to agree to let their children be assessed to enter the program. The state will establish a readiness rate, based on the outcomes, to determine whether the school is successful.
Who will ensure that these private schools spend the public's money wisely?
Lawmakers say the parents are the first line of defense, but have put much of the burden on the local early learning coalitions - which are made up of businesspeople, educators and political appointees - to monitor schools in their areas. Schools can be placed on probation, but the bill gives schools up to four years to correct problems.
What will a 4-year-old learn in prekindergarten?
Each school will select its own curriculum. But it must focus on early literacy skills, such as oral communication, knowledge of print and letters, vocabulary and comprehension.
How can parents figure out which schools will participate and which ones are best for their children?
The early learning coalitions will provide detailed profiles of each school to help parents make this determination. The information will include all teacher qualifications, the school's curriculum and its policies.
Can a school that wants better teachers and longer school days supplement the money it gets from the state with private tuition?
Yes and no. The law bans schools from requiring any fee or charge for services for the state universal pre-K. It does not stop a school from offering programs before and after the state plan.
Can children already enrolled in preschool stay in the same school?
Yes, if the school agrees to participate in the program.
What about children who are a few years away from prekindergarten? Will the program change by the time they are old enough?
Maybe. Lawmakers promise to monitor the program and make changes as needed. But they rejected amendments that would have turned those promises into guarantees.
TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers approved a voluntary, universal prekindergarten program Thursday that was alternately praised as a strong first step and derided as an inadequate baby step.
Few disagreed that the $400-million program needs fixing. Senate sponsor Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, likened the bill to the start of a long journey.
But they refused to make substantive changes now for fear the House and Senate might diverge and derail the carefully crafted compromise. Already stung by the governor's veto this spring, lawmakers were under the gun to pass a bill so classes for an expected 150,000 4-year-olds can begin in August 2005.
Gov. Jeb Bush called it a "first-class proposal" that he would "absolutely" sign into law.
The most significant differences between this bill and the one he vetoed are a stricter cap on teacher-student ratios, and a stated goal to eventually have teachers with bachelor's degrees.
"I'm very happy that they made these changes, and I believe we can implement this. It is a practical solution to a very important undertaking," Bush said.
Bush also acknowledged that the proposal requires future changes. "But I think we start in a pretty good position," he said.
The governor lauded the legislation for including an early literacy component, strong assessment of student performance and goals to ramp up teacher credentials within eight years.
"I think what we're going to find is, this will work," he said.
Not everyone was so confident.
Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, who spearheaded much of the Democratic opposition in the House, acknowledged that the final bill was better than the one Bush vetoed. She praised the aim set to increase teacher credentials over time. "But it's just goals, just "We hope,' " Ausley said. "That's not good enough for me."
Overall, Ausley argued, the program should have mandated higher quality standards.
All but one House Democrat, Dwight Stansel of Wellborn, voted against the bill. In the Senate, Democrats registered complaints, but only four voted no.
Sen. Nan Rich, D-Sunrise, was one. "Too many things need to be changed," Rich said. "A child is 4 only once. We have only one chance to get it right."
Many early childhood advocates agreed.
Larry Keough of the Florida Catholic Conference listed myriad "serious concerns" his group has with the bill. One, shared by several South Florida Democrats, was that private providers can turn away students they don't want.
Another was grounded in the way prekindergarten likely will work.
Most families will rely on private schools because public schools don't have the space to handle a new group of students. In many instances, parents will send their children to the private 3-hour prekindergarten program and then pay for day care before and after, either with cash or federal subsidies.
But Keough worried that middle-class families who don't qualify for subsidies and who can't afford extra care might get shut out of the system.
Unlike K-12 schools, transportation is not included in the program. If schools provide transportation, they must pay for it.
The state will determine whether schools remain in the program by testing students. That prompted additional concerns that private schools might "cherry pick" students who will perform well on the tests.
"It begs the question: How will they be placed?" Keough said. "The amendment says for all children."
Libby Doggett, executive director of the Trust for Early Education in Washington, D.C., called the measure a "baby step." If the Legislature improves the curriculum standards and the teacher qualification requirements in the spring, she said, it will be a good first step.
"It needs to be refined and it needs to be well funded," Doggett said. "That's the next fight."
House and Senate leaders said they expect to appropriate about $400-million for the program, which could serve an estimated 150,000 children. Among the changes lawmakers expect to consider in the spring is tightened financial oversight.
But they warned that other measures Democrats pushed, such as prohibiting discrimination or limiting religious instruction, will be harder to pass. They were not concerned about protests that the program might not be constitutional because it gives public money to religious institutions.
Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he would revisit such issues "if some of the parades of horribles occur."
He referred to predictions by some Democrats that religious schools might deny admission to students who are not of the same religion, or that children with disabilities might not find adequate programs to attend.
House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said he also wanted to give the program some time to operate before reworking it.
"I'm not inclined early on to make changes," Bense said. "I think we should give it a chance."
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings said implementing the program is the "most important step."
That includes the governor's appointing chairmen to 30 local early learning coalitions, which will oversee prekindergarten operations. The Department of Education will begin reviewing curricula for recommended use, and preparing to implement evaluations that will determine if schools are meeting goals.
School operators, meanwhile, will begin evaluating whether they want to participate. If so, they will have to prepare information for parents to review so they can decide where to send their children.
House sponsor Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, said it was a good place for Florida to be entering the holiday season.
"I couldn't be happier," Goodlette said, shortly after the Senate passed the same bill he had steered through the House. "This is a wonderful holiday gift to the parents of 4-year-old children who are now going to have a learning opportunity for prekindergarten, quality education."
[Last modified December 17, 2004, 00:08:09]