By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
With the stroke of a pen Sunday, Gov. Jeb Bush sent Florida's new prekindergarten program in a race against time.
Bush signed the contentious legislation during a flight from Miami, as he began a trip to Asia to assess tsunami damage for his older brother, President Bush. Now Florida has 214 days to begin the nation's largest free Pre-K system for 4-year-olds. About 150,000 children might participate, about double the size of the nation's next biggest program, in Georgia.
"There isn't a lot of time," said David Lawrence, chairman of the Miami-based Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. "But the law says very clearly that it must begin with the start of the school year 2005. So, it's going to be a scramble, but it simply must get done."
Bush vetoed the Legislature's first attempt to craft a Pre-K program in the spring. The bill he signed into law was passed during a special legislative session in December. Critics complained it fell short of the high-quality standard voters demanded.
"Ensuring students enter kindergarten well prepared ultimately results in greater opportunity for all students to succeed," Bush said in a statement.
Lawrence, who spearheaded the 2002 voter initiative, called the bill a positive first step.
Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings shared that view during a telephone news conference Sunday.
"We in fact are very enthusiastic about the fact that we think we've got a good beginning," Jennings said.
The law provides $11.8-million to begin implementation. Jennings said she did not know how much Bush will ask for to fully fund the program later this month, but suggested it would be about $350-million.
That amount could be enough, or fall far short. Experts pointed out that enrollment estimates are just guesses. And many private schools won't commit their involvement until they get details about how the program will operate and how much money they'll be paid.
Jennings said legislators might not have the budget set until May, leaving little time for providers to join and parents to enroll.
The full-year program could sink without sufficient private providers. Most public schools lack the space to handle the influx of preschoolers. Hillsborough County alone expects 10,000 to 15,000 youngsters to apply.
There already is a waiting list for the state's subsidized child care program.
If there aren't enough private schools to offer Pre-K during the school year, Jennings said, the bulk of the program might fall to public schools during the summer. The law requires county school districts to provide summer Pre-K classes, for which they must accept all applicants.
"If the Legislature will fund this in the way it needs to be funded - substantially - then I think providers are going to want to avail themselves of the money to improve their programs," said Libby Doggett, a national prekindergarten expert.
One figure frequently mentioned, $2,500 per child, might be too low for some, said Daniel R. Morris, president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, which represents private day care providers. "Certainly, the closer they get to $3,000, I think they'll have more participation."
But Morris remained confident that enough centers would rise to the challenge. He figured the early education readiness system already in place since the late 1990s would pick up the prekindergarten piece without problem.
Dave McGerald, head of the Hillsborough County School Readiness Coalition, agreed.
"Hillsborough County for years, even before this coalition, has had a pretty good system in place. The partnership between the coalition, the school district and the Children's Board is incredible," McGerald said.
The organization likely will hire staff to oversee prekindergarten, he said. Charged with enrolling families and coordinating schools, the coalition awaits the rules from Tallahassee, he said.
Gladys Wilson, who will put together the state program as interim director of the Florida Partnership for School Readiness, said her agency has been planning for months.
"We have a lot of the rules ready to go," Wilson said.
She expected her first order of business today to be finding new staff. The law authorizes her department and two others to hire 42.5 positions to prepare prekindergarten. That should not prove too daunting, Wilson said, because she already received several inquiries.
Before legislators passed the bill, Bush predicted they would need to fix problems in the spring. Senate and House leaders, meanwhile, have suggested they will consider ways to tighten accountability.
Doggett, the Pre-K expert, said the state has a clear path ahead.
"You're not actually starting from scratch, because you're building on a foundation of early childhood programs, some of which are high quality, most of which are mediocre quality, and some of which are poor quality," she said. "It's daunting, but it's doable."
--Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 269-5304.