Pre-K access high, but funding low

A report says the quality of the state's program might suffer from a lack of money.

Published March 14, 2007

A new national report on the state of prekindergarten programs calls Florida's model "particularly worrisome" because it looks to reach so many children without enough money to create high quality.

Florida's Voluntary Prekindergarten VPK program, now in its second full year, serves nearly half of eligible 4-year-olds, ranking it fourth in terms of access. Only Oklahoma, Georgia and Vermont serve larger proportions.

Yet Florida rates 35th of 38 states with pre-K programs when it comes to per-child funding, the National Institute for Early Education Research reports in its 2006 annual assessment of state preschool offerings.

The state paid $2,163 per child, after taking into account partial funding for those kids who didn't finish a full year of the program, according to the study released today. Neighboring Georgia, by contrast, paid $3,977, and New Jersey was tops with $9,854.

That access-vs.-funding disconnect alarms researchers.

"Across the nation, we see that states are increasing their commitment, raising enrollment and raising the standards," said Steve Barnett, executive director of the Rutgers University-based institute, which supports early childhood education initiatives. "Then we have that one worry that enrollment may rise faster than the financial support for the program. That will make it difficult to meet the standards they have set.

"Florida really is the poster child for that worry," Barnett said during a conference call about the 2006 State Preschool Yearbook.

Quality questioned

Florida's program did not receive a full rating in the 2005 yearbook, which assesses systems based on 10 quality standards, such as maximum class size and student-teacher ratio, as well as accessibility and funding.

Barnett noted that Florida meets only four of the 10 quality standards, which his group cites as minimum benchmarks. Just two other states, Pennsylvania and Kansas, met fewer benchmarks. Only two states, North Carolina and Alabama, met all 10.

Barnett blamed Florida lawmakers for "grossly underestimating" the cost of pre-K. As a result, he said, Florida doesn't have the kind of program voters called for in 2002, when they approved an amendment to establish a "high-quality prekindergarten learning opportunity."

Instead, he said, the 540-hour program has a plethora of "minimals" - minimal requirements for teacher credentials, minimal teacher aide qualifications and minimal in-service training mandates, among other items.

The state enrolled 46.5 percent of eligible 4-year-olds - 105,896 children - in the program in the period covered by the national report. As of Tuesday, VPK enrollment was 111,263.

"Florida is worrisome because of its very success," Barnett suggested. "If you're going to serve most of the children in Florida, you really would like to see them served in a high-quality program."

Jenifer McKee, who owns Academy of Learning in St. Petersburg, agreed partially with Barnett's assessment. The 540-hour voluntary pre-K program (not to mention the shorter 300-hour summer version) does not offer nearly enough time to prepare all 4-year-olds for kindergarten, she said. The low funding makes it tough to hire and keep top teachers and aides, she added.

"Those have been the problems since the beginning, and I don't see it getting any better," McKee said.

But she rejected the idea that quality has suffered.

"I don't think we are shorting on the quality," she said. "We are providing it. We are just not getting paid for it."

Little change expected

When they wrote the pre-implementation law, lawmakers said they were taking a first step. Revisions would come as the program matured, they promised, in the face of demands for teachers with bachelor's degrees, more hours for classes and more money per student.

Yet as the 2007 legislative session enters its second week, pre-K reform is not on the radar screen, said Sen. Stephen Wise, who chairs the Education Pre-K-12 Appropriations Committee. Wise filed a shell bill to revise early education legislation, "just in case something comes up. ... I have nothing right now," he said.

He did not sense anyone would be pushing for all pre-K teachers to have bachelor's degrees, saying the state has enough trouble filling its ranks of elementary and secondary teachers. Nor did he expect more money for pre-K.

Increase falls short

Gov. Charlie Crist has recommended a 2.44 percent increase in pre-K funding, or $62 per student, to $2,622. That amount falls short of early education advocates' recommendations of $3,899 per child.

Rep. Joe Pickens, chairman of the House Schools and Learning Council, shared a similarly dim budget view. If pre-K per-student funding rises, he said, it will be because the program does not meet its enrollment projections.

Pickens admitted his surprise that pre-K hasn't gotten more attention this session.

"I kind of expected that we would examine the summer program, at least, which generated the most concern," he said, noting complaints about the lengthy school days crammed into a short period of time. "But so far it doesn't look like there's a big push in either the House or Senate to revise (VPK) at this point."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813-909-4614. For more education news, visit our blog The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast Facts:


What is VPK?

Florida's Voluntary Prekindergarten program is open to all 4-year-olds in Florida. Mandated by voters in 2002, it offers up to 540 hours of early education, with an emphasis on reading readiness, at public and private centers and schools.

To learn more about VPK, go to www.vpkflorida.org.

To read the NIEER 2006 State Preschool Yearbook, go to http://nieer.org/yearbook2006/pdf/yearbook.pdf