State pre-K program under fire

Advocates of early education call Florida's program the model that states should avoid.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 25, 2006

Florida's universal prekindergarten program was hailed as a national model when voters approved it in 2002.

These days, pre-K advocates from across the nation are calling Florida the example to avoid.

Instead of the "high-quality" program promised to voters, state lawmakers opted for lax teacher requirements and inadequate funding, early childhood experts said Tuesday.

"From where I sit, what unfolded is really trying to do pre-K on the cheap," said Abby Thorman, who advised Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to look elsewhere when crafting that state's new pre-K initiative. "Because of both the low per-child funding and the real absence of standards for high quality, Florida became the model of exactly what we didn't want to do."

That message is being heard by early childhood education experts as more states take up the call for improved pre-K, said Libby Doggett, executive director of the advocacy group Pre-K Now. She was among the participants in a Tuesday telephone conference about national pre-K trends.

Doggett counted Florida among a group of states that reach large numbers, but have such low standards that parents should wonder how it differs from child care. On its current track, she said, Florida will be left behind other states.

"People had such high hopes for Florida," Doggett said in an interview later.

The constitutional amendment that established pre-K in this state mandated that it be high quality. And an advisory panel recommended specific criteria to meet the mark.

But despite two tries, the Legislature came up with minimal standards for pre-K teachers, who aren't required to have college degrees. In the most recent session, lawmakers increased funding by less than 1 percent.

Doggett said Vermont, Minnesota and Illinois have standards for child care facilities equal to or higher than Florida's standards for pre-K.

Advocates also pointed to Florida's large budget surplus, saying pre-K deficiencies are more a failure of will than of resources.

The program's reputation has become so negative that pre-K opponents in other states are using it as a whipping boy. They say Florida has shown you can spend $400-million annually and still end up with a pre-K program unlikely to generate long-term positive results.

Things could change. Many lawmakers want to see how the first-year results look, said Rep. Joe Pickens, the House education appropriations chairman.

"But I think you're also going to find that class size is going to inhibit everything," Pickens said, referring to another 2002 voter mandate that requires lower class sizes at all grade levels. That program is forcing the state to spend millions on construction instead of programs.

Gladys Wilson, who oversees the state pre-K program, said there's no proof that a teacher needs a college degree to be effective. And even if there was, she said, Florida can't even find enough teachers to fill its K-12 classrooms.

"I'm not ashamed that we have 100,000 families who want this program for their children," Wilson said, noting that Florida in two years has served more children than Georgia has in 10. "Could it be better? Absolutely. Will it be? I believe it will."

Doggett hoped so.

"All it would take is one session of the Legislature, and one bill, to turn it around," she said. "It would be national news."

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