Governor joins call for certified pre-K teachers

The concept is not in his budget proposal, but that could change.

Published April 3, 2007

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 and 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.

"I wasn't asked to sign onto the letter," Crist said. "I would have. I'd sign onto it today."

He acknowledged the concept is not in his budget proposal, 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 prekindergarten teacher qualifications.

"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 stand on prekindergarten.

"Charlie has spoken passionately about following the will of the voter. He has spoken about high-quality teachers," Miller said.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, has a bill pending that would make the changes 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 cause.

"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."

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, a governor has a way of making things happen. "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 becomes a priority of the governor, it makes me stand and take notice."

Danny Morris, past president of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, 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 prekindergarten teachers need bachelor's 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 prekindergarten 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.

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.