Pre-K schools: Funds too low

While the state contribution may work in more rural areas, providers in urban areas say it falls short of their needs.

Published January 19, 2005

Gov. Jeb Bush said Tuesday that he wants to spend about $2,500 for each student in Florida's new universal prekindergarten program.

Many potential pre-K providers think that isn't enough.

"I can tell you, it's less than what we're currently charging," said Elaine Peverell, owner of the Lutz Learning Center in northern Hillsborough County.

Peverell said she wants her school to participate in the prekindergarten system, which debuts in August. But the state must first spend enough money to create the high-quality program voters approved, she said.

"If you've got grandiose thoughts, you've got to be able to pay for these things," Peverell said.

Bush announced the per-student funding when he unveiled his recommended state budget Tuesday. He said his proposed total of $400.5-million for prekindergarten is enough to create a quality program focused on early literacy.

The program is expected to draw as many as 154,000 4-year-olds in its first year. The state is relying on private schools to provide the majority of seats, though no one knows how many will join up for $2,500 a student.

In outlying areas such as rural Hernando County, $2,500 sounded like quite enough.

"We're clear out in the country, and our rates are not as high as other places," said Blanche Amsler, director of Eden Christian School north of Brooksville, which charges $1,800 a year for a 31/2-hour prekindergarten.

Costs are higher in urban areas. In Hillsborough County, the Jewish Community Center preschool in Citrus Park, for example, charges $3,600 a year for its three-hour prekindergarten.

Director Leni Sack said she's not sure whether the JCC will take the state money, and the law bans parents from paying extra for prekindergarten.

"My first priority is to maintain the quality of the program I have," she said.

Like other providers, Sack said she would be more likely to offer the state program if parents keep their children in the school the entire day. That way, the school could recoup the difference through added charges for extra services.

The law allows parents to pay those costs. Low-income families could continue to receive government subsidies for child care.

Diane Doyle, director of the Creative Learning Center in Pinellas Park, worries that depending on money beyond the prekindergarten amount could leave many children unserved.

Middle-class parents who can't afford extra care might not be able to take advantage of the state's offer, Doyle said. Low-income families might lose access because subsidized child care programs have lengthy waiting lists.

Lawmakers have said the prekindergarten money will replace three hours of subsidized child care, freeing cash for more families to pay for before- or aftercare.

Doyle said schools could be left hiring teachers for a full day when many are needed for less time.

"Our school will be doing (prekindergarten)," Doyle said. "I just don't know how it's going to work."

Another potential problem: Not all providers have enough space to meet expected demand. The Lutz Learning Center, for instance, has room for only 20 4-year-olds.

Opening a new, high-quality pre-k program can cost as much as $17,000 in materials, curriculum, furniture and other items, said Susan Morris, the early childhood supervisor for Hillsborough County schools. "Without startup costs, ($2,500 per student) is still very, very low."

She said the state should consider providing seed money, as Georgia did.

Some state officials have said that if private schools do not have enough seats during the school year, families will still have the option of a 300-hour public school summer program.

But that might not be attractive once parents do the math. To fit 300 hours of instruction into a 10-week summer break, children would end up in class six hours a day, all summer long.

Suzanne Gellens, executive director of the Early Childhood Association of Florida, said the best answer is for the state to spend more money on prekindergarten.

The Policy Group for Florida's Families and Children estimates it would cost $3,862 per student to create a "high quality" program.

"What (Bush) is talking about is a voucher slot that just pays for a child's seat," Gellens said.

Danny Morris, president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, said he told lawmakers that $2,700 per student was the minimum to operate the program.

But $2,500, he said, is close enough.

"We will work with the Legislature to come up with the number we need," said Morris, who predicted enough providers would step forward.