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Group demands answers on pre-K

Children's Campaign wants concrete solutions from the gubernatorial candidates about how they'd improve the program.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published August 15, 2006


As he listens to the major party candidates for Florida governor, Roy Miller gets frustrated.

"It's all been heavy on rhetoric and light on substance," complains Miller, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Children's Campaign advocacy group. "And when it comes to children's issues, it's not even been heavy on rhetoric."

So the Children's Campaign, along with other players including Florida TaxWatch, plans to dog the candidates at public events and demand answers. Topping its wish list is some specificity about the constitutional amendment for universal prekindergarten.

The amendment, approved by 59 percent of voters in 2002, calls for a "voluntary, high-quality, free" prekindergarten program, delivered according to "professionally accepted standards" to all Florida 4-year-olds.

Miller and others contend that the state has not yet adequately funded its pre-K program, and that lawmakers created an early education system that falls far short of high quality. One problem, they say, is the program sets teacher credential requirements too low and does not set any curriculum requirements.

In its first year, the program served just more than 40 percent of Florida's 4-year-olds, a fraction of the number expected. Its short hours and lack of transportation prompted even some State Board of Education members to question whether the system offered a viable option to many working families.

"We are going to the candidates' events and we will ask the question," Miller said. "We (as a nonprofit) are unable to endorse candidates . . . We can certainly ask candidates questions and encourage Florida voters to ask questions."

Already, the groups have delivered hundreds of drawings from 4-year-olds, along with letters from their parents, asking the candidates to commit to "fixing" pre-K. They got what they consider perfunctory answers.

Next, they plan rallies and debates in St. Petersburg, Miami and Orlando, and letters to campaign contributors urging them to have their candidates speak to the issue.

"It has a connecting point to so many avenues of our health, our economic prosperity and of our competitiveness as a state and as a people," said Dominic Calabro, Florida TaxWatch executive director.

Plus, it's mandated in the constitution.

"Florida TaxWatch takes that seriously," Calabro said. "We should take advantage of that and do it well."

The Times put the issue directly to each of the four major party candidates. Only one, Democrat Rod Smith, called back. The others sent responses by e-mail.

As a state senator representing Alachua County, Smith voted in December 2004 for the pre-K enabling legislation that the critics don't like. He said he held his nose as he did so.

"Not to vote for it would be to vote against implementation," he explained. "Any step was better than no step."

Now the state must put more money into per-student funding, Smith said, anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 more per student. It must beef up teacher credential requirements, he said, and add hours to the program so parents have real options.

"You can't tell a working family, 'You can drop your child off at 8:30 a.m. and pick him up at 11:30 a.m.,'" he said. "I don't think we're there yet. It has to be front and center on the next governor's agenda."

Smith's rival in the Democratic primary, U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, called it "vitally important" that Florida develop a strong early education system. In an e-mail, Davis said the state must have "a real high quality pre-K program that makes sure that all children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn."

Key to the program, he said, are "qualified teachers" and "quality curriculum." He did not offer more details.

Republican candidate Tom Gallagher of Miami, currently the state's chief financial officer, took the stance in an e-mail that the existing pre-K system is doing the job.

"As a parent, I understand the importance of having our children ready to learn when it's time to start school," Gallagher said. "Florida's pre-K program has provided opportunity and choice for Florida's parents and a good foundation for learning."

His primary opponent, attorney general Charlie Crist of Pinellas County, came closer to criticizing the program, but stopped short.

On one hand, Crist said, the voters made clear that they want a program to give youngsters a strong foundation for learning. It still must mature into something that best serves children, he said.

The answer is not easily reached, though, Crist continued, because Florida does not have the data from the first year to know whether regulatory changes are needed.

"I will use state funds strategically to increase the performance and satisfaction of students and their families, and preschools that do not consistently and adequately prepare our students will not be eligible for state funding," Crist said.

He did not offer further details.

Pre-K is just one high profile issue that the candidates should address with more substance, said Miller, of the Children's Campaign. He mentioned the state's high teen incarceration and its poor protection of foster children as two other examples.

His chief operating officer, Linda Alexionok, put the matter in stark terms: "Florida is getting ready to elect the highest office in the state," she said. "The voters have basically said these are things that matter to us. ... We want to ask, 'If you're elected, what are you going to do for the children of Florida?'"

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

[Last modified August 15, 2006, 07:32:06]


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