Catholic schools wary about state's prekindergarten plan

The state's largest private school system said Monday it probably won't participate in Florida's new prekindergarten program unless the Legislature makes major changes in the law.

Published February 1, 2005

The Florida Catholic Conference, which is expected to educate about 5 percent of Florida's pre-K students, wants the state to pay for a full-day program rather than the three-hour daily program now planned, said Larry Keough, the conference's point person on the issue.

The conference also wants to pretest students as a benchmark to measure student growth because the state will use tests to rate a school's success. It also wants state-supported transportation, enrollment rules that do not allow schools to discriminate and assurances that state funding will rise to cover all costs.

Gov. Jeb Bush has recommended spending $2,500 per child. The Catholic schools spend an average of $3,560 per student in their early education programs.

"There are a plethora of problems that are very disconcerting to us that need to be addressed for our programs to participate across the state," Keough said.

The Legislature passed the voter-mandated prekindergarten program during a special session in December. Lawmakers said they might tinker with the law during the regular session that starts March 8, but they want to give the program a chance before making major changes. Classes begin in August.

State Sen. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, has proposed doubling program hours and requiring schools to offer state-approved curricula. No other pre-K bills have been filed.

Private schools, including those run by religious groups, are expected to handle most of the pre-K students because most public schools don't have room for the 150,000 expected to enroll.

But no one really knows how many children will sign up, said Gladys Wilson, director of the state Office of Early Learning, or how many schools and day care centers will participate. She also has no idea if lawmakers will change the law.

"We really won't know until probably later than we would like," Wilson said. "But we're going to work through this as best as we can."

To gauge interest, the state will begin collecting preregistration information for children and schools today.

That will help the state determine needs, she said.

It's too early to say what will happen to the program if the Florida Catholic Conference does not participate, Wilson said. If families stick with Catholic schools even if they don't participate, that will have little affect on the program, she said.

"If every family who has used the Catholic preschool s .. . wants to use another provider, that could be an issue," she said.

It's also unclear how many private schools will follow the Catholics' lead.

Several private school directors say the program rules are unclear and the money is insufficient. Some already are beginning enrollment for the fall and have parents willing to pay without a state prekindergarten voucher.

"I'm ready to sit back and watch, and see how it plays out," said Carlyle Dorroh, director of All Saints Episcopal School in St. Petersburg.

Keough said he is drafting a letter detailing the Catholic Conference's concerns, and plans to send it to the governor and legislative leaders later this week. The organization will wait to see what happens before making a final decision, he said.

--Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com