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By Times Staff Writer
Published December 17, 2004
Who is eligible for the state's prekindergarten 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.