tampabay.com

Critics: Pre-K unfair to needy

The plan allows discrimination and it will likely provide the most benefit to families who need it the least, they say.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published April 4, 2005


Florida's Catholic schools would love to offer the state's new prekindergarten program.

But the law governing pre-K has problems, says Larry Keough, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference.

It allows schools to turn away children without explanation. Low-income families will have less access to the program because of state-imposed limits on transportation and instruction time. And children with disabilities have no guarantee of service in the private sector, where the bulk of pre-K instruction will be offered.

"We're very concerned," says Keough, who has told Gov. Jeb Bush and legislative leaders that questions about access could keep the state's largest private school system on the sidelines.

As Florida officials rush to create a program that will serve as many as 150,000 4-year-olds beginning in August, one issue is moving to center stage: Will all families be able to take advantage of a program the state bills as universal?

Early childhood advocates say even the learning standards designed to ensure students are ready to move on to kindergarten could become a significant barrier to enrollment.

The state intends to evaluate pre-K providers based on how well their students perform on an end-of-the-year assessment. Critics say that gives providers a powerful incentive to admit only youngsters who appear able to make the grade.

"It's free enterprise, and I understand that schools can do it," says Suzanne Gellens, executive director of the Early Childhood Association of Florida. "Hopefully, schools will do what is best for children."

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Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, supported the 2002 constitutional amendment that ordered the state to create a free and universal pre-K program.

But if access isn't addressed by lawmakers, he warns, the result could be an entitlement program for families that already can afford pre-K and therefore need free classes the least.

The few bills dealing with pre-K are showing little life halfway through the legislative session. Most of the talk has focused on the pre-K budget, which is expected to be at least $400-million annually.

Pre-K advocates say even that amount of money won't be enough to provide services considered essential to making the program truly universal.

The state, for example, will not pay for rides to and from pre-K classes. And many working-poor families could eliminate themselves because they can't afford child care before and after the three-hour program.

"Transportation and wraparound services are very important," says Emily Cardenas, a spokeswoman for the Children's Trust in Miami. "It is, I suspect, going to prevent some people from accessing" pre-K.

Critics say the biggest problem is the pre-K law, which passed by a wide margin during a special session in December.

The law gives pre-K providers the right to turn away students. The wording is plain: "The provider may determine whether to admit any child."

Lawmakers included an anti-discrimination caveat based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it refers only to race, color and national origin. It does not prohibit discrimination based on gender, religion, disabilities and other defining characteristics.

Democrats decried the wording during legislative debate. They said it would allow faith-based schools to turn away children of different religions, or let tough academic schools reject children who don't already read.

Several people questioned the fate of children with learning disabilities or other special educational needs.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, insisted during the debate that the law does not allow discrimination. And most youngsters with special needs, she said, can get services through public schools.

But the language has major players, including the Catholic Conference, backing away from participation.

"It's about ensuring that all children have access to these programs," including children with disabilities, Keough says.

He and others back an idea that could ease concerns: Assess students when they enter prekindergarten, so the readiness evaluation at the end of the year would show progress as well as achievement.

"If you have a pre-assessment, there might be more receptivity on the part of private providers to accept children into the program," said Keough, who said such an effort also would help focus instruction where youngsters need it most.

Even groups that scoff at the idea of schools cherry-picking students appear willing t o support pre- and post-testing.

"Some children just don't learn as fast as others. That's the real world," says Danny Morris, president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, who dismisses the idea that providers might reject children based on predicted performance.

But the state agencies charged with enforcing the law do not intend to ask for an amendment.

Gladys Wilson, who heads the Agency for Workforce Innovation's pre-K division, says it's "human nature" that some providers will violate the spirit of universal pre-K.

But it won't happen often, she says, "because people in this field are in it for the right reasons."

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The state expects about 70 percent of eligible 4-year-olds to sign up for pre-K. Some officials worry that those who don't will be the ones who need it the most.

Miami-Dade superintendent Rudy Crew says school districts must help provide services to families who aren't thinking about getting children ready for kindergarten.

Pre-K centers need to be located where parents live and work, Crew recently told the state Board of Education. "We've got to get our programs in that mix, which means we've got to go there."

The trick is making it work for everyone.

The pre-K law allows low-income families to receive subsidized child care before and after pre-K classes. And it lets more affluent families pay for the child care services.

Families that fall in the middle will have a tougher time. Even if they want to send a child to the free pre-K classes, they may struggle to find a provider that also offers affordable after-school care.

"That is a problem," says Emily Cardenas, the spokeswoman for the Children's Trust in Miami. "If you're not poor enough to qualify for subsidized wraparound services, but not making enough to be able to pay, you're out."

The law also makes no financial provisions for transportation to and from pre-K.

"I'm not sure a poor parent can afford the time and transportation" for pre-K, which lasts less than half a day, says King, the Jacksonville senator.

More likely, he says, parents who have been paying for preschool "will get a free ride from the state" while those who need the program won't sign up.

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