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Crist says he supports degree requirement for pre-k teachers

“How do you argue against having certified teachers? I don’t want to make that argument,” Crist says.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published April 2, 2007


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Mark down Gov. Charlie Crist as a yes on the question of whether Florida prekindergarten teachers should have bachelor’s degrees by 2013.

“How do you argue against having certified teachers? I don’t want to make that argument,” Crist, a former education commissioner, told the St. Petersburg Times during an editorial board meeting Monday.

Over the weekend, six former Florida governors plus the widow of a seventh called upon Crist and the Legislature to live up to the 2002 voter mandate for high quality prekindergarten.

It could be done, they said, by requiring pre-k teachers to have four-year degrees. Right now, that’s just a goal in the law.
Responded Crist: “I wasn’t asked to sign onto the letter. I would have. I’d sign onto it today.”

He acknowledged that the concept is not in his budget proposals, but said that could change.

“The real negotiation on the money begins next week, so there’s great opportunity to tweak and modify and realize new priorities,” Crist said.

Some estimate the cost could run into many millions of dollars.

His comments sent a charge through the ranks of early education advocates who have pressed for more stringent pre-k teacher qualifications ever since the amendment won 59 percent voter approval.

“He’s absolutely going down the right path,” said Roy Miller, president of the Children’s Campaign, which helped organize the former governors to take a stance on pre-k.

“Charlie has spoken passionately about following the will of the voter. He has spoken about high quality teachers,” Miller said. “He has added up 1+1 and he knows it equals pre-k.”

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, has a bill pending that would make the changes that the former governors called for. There’s an identical bill in the House moving just as slowly. Rich called it exciting for Crist to join the call.

“We may not be able to do it this year,” Rich said. “But knowing he supports it, maybe next year we’ll be able to move ahead.”

Skepticism reigned among key education lawmakers, though.

“It really is an economic issue,” said Senate Education Appropriations chairman Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville. “I think everybody wants quality in pre-k. ... It’s just a matter of how we really put the plan together so we don’t put ourselves in a bind.”

He noted that implementing the class-size reduction amendment, which voters also adopted in 2002, is budgeted at $2.7-billion for next year. Crist has other education priorities, too.

“We listen to him and he has his budget,” Wise said. “Our job is to make it work. And there are all kinds of priorities.”
Rep. Joe Pickens, the Republican chairman of the House Schools and Learning Council, harbored similar doubts. In addition to the money question, he said, there’s also the issue of whether Florida could find enough qualified teachers.

Still, he continued, if the governor wants to move forward with the concept of requiring that pre-k teachers have degrees, it’s not too late to give it a look.

“Like the governor said, the last four to five weeks of session are a fluid thing,” Pickens said. “If something within the purview of my council because a priority of the governor, it makes me stand and take notice.”

Danny Morris, past president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, meanwhile said his group would oppose such a change. Private providers could not afford to pay better credentialed teachers, he said, if they could find them.
He also questioned whether pre-k teachers need bachelors degrees.

“Do they need more than they’ve got now? Yes,” Morris said. “We would like to see something between what is existing now, in the (child development associate) credential and the four-year degree.”

If Florida were to require pre-k teachers to have four-year degrees, it would not be alone. Already, 22 of the 37 other states that have pre-k programs have that mandate, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Having a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee to a teacher’s success, said Steve Barnett, the group’s executive director. But it does offer a strong indication of how good a teacher could be.

“Florida could become the national leader in early education if it ramps up its teacher quality,” said Barnett, whose annual yearbook rated the state near the bottom in current prekindergarten programs.

Staff writer Adam Smith contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

[Last modified April 2, 2007, 15:30:45]


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