How to improve pre-K

Published March 31, 2007

As former governors, we may find ourselves with different points of view about political issues, but we all agree that one of life's greatest joys is being a grandparent. We understand how important it is that each of our families' own grandchildren, along with every child in Florida, enters school ready to learn.

We are serving as honorary co-chairs of a statewide campaign, Seniors4Kids (www.seniors4kids.org) because, as grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, we know it is not enough to pay lip service to this idea. We want to make sure that in the coming year Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature realize the promise of the constitutional amendment voters overwhelmingly passed in November 2002 and provide all of Florida's children with prekindergarten classes taught by qualified teachers with bachelor's degrees.

The 2002 constitutional amendment assured Florida voters that high-quality universal prekindergartens would be in place within four years. This is the fourth year. Now is the time for our state to mandate that we take steps toward making that promise a reality.

According to the latest annual report from the National Institute for Early Education, the quality of Florida's pre-K program ranks among the lowest in the nation. When our state's 4-year-olds are most ready to learn, they are now failing to get the education they need.

Research shows that teachers with bachelor's degrees create superior learning environments. They have more responsive interactions with children and provide richer language and learning experiences. Yet Florida's legislation currently frames bachelor's degrees for pre-K teachers as a desirable goal, rather than a requirement. Seniors4Kids is working hard to change the language of the bill to make degreed teachers mandatory.

We can change the world by changing one word. To raise the level of the state's program and adequately prepare and educate our 4-year-olds, Florida must require that pre-K classroom teachers have a four-year college degree and specialized training in early childhood education by 2013.

Economic incentives in the form of salary and benefits will be necessary to attract and retain degreed teachers. What is required now is the political commitment to do it. This investment will more than pay for itself. Florida TaxWatch indicates that taxpayers could save upward of $5.3-billion annually if Florida implemented a high-quality pre-K program. Potential savings also include the cost of nonpromotion, of high school dropouts and the future earnings of dropouts and juvenile offenders.

A high-quality pre-K program has the capacity to generate a significant return on investment, as much as $7 for every $1 invested. In fact, establishing high-quality prekindergartens is the most cost-effective way to decrease the number of unskilled adults in Florida's work force. Students with a high-quality preschool education are up to 21 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 23 percent more likely to graduate from college.

It has been said that children are the message we send to a future we will not see. As former governors and as citizens concerned about Florida's children, we urge Gov. Crist and the Florida Legislature to provide quality pre-K with degreed teachers. We want to make sure we are sending a positive message to our state's future.

Former Govs. Claude Kirk Jr., Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Wayne Mixson, Bob Martinez and Buddy MacKay, and Rhea Chiles, wife of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles.