First class or baby step: Pre-K passes

The Legislature approves a program for 4-year-olds that Gov. Bush says he'll sign but that most agree needs fixes.

Published December 17, 2004

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."