tampabay.com

Florida's pre-K promises unkept

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published April 9, 2007


Imagine, for a moment, Florida lawmakers answering angry property owners this year with a law that sets an "aspirational goal" of lowering property taxes over the next decade. Would they dare, upon returning to their home districts, show their faces in public?

That, however, is precisely how legislators responded two years ago to a public mandate for prekindergarten. Now Florida is being judged as one of the nation's worst pre-K programs, what one national expert called a "poster child" for spreading standards and money too thin. And where is the political will to help 4-year-olds?

Six former governors are asking this question, and all Floridians deserve an answer. The constitutional amendment that established free and universal pre-K went so far as to include the words "high quality," a description that may have seemed gratuitous given the broad bipartisan support at the time. But talk, it turns out, was cheap. Lawmakers responded with a three-hour-a-day program and an "aspirational goal" of employing certified teachers. The money per student this year, $2,560, ranks Florida 35th of 38 states with pre-K.

What makes this neglect all the more curious is the way key legislative leaders, state education officials and former Gov. Jeb Bush supported the initiative as it went to voters in 2002. The Department of Education even produced brochures explaining how much money would be saved by investing in children when they are young and most educationally impressionable. DOE also informed voters the cost would be roughly $4,320 per student. Adjusted for inflation, the state now spends half that.

As the legislative session got under way last month, key education leaders in the House and Senate told reporters they did not foresee any improvements for prekindergarten this year. Indeed the proposed budgets alone are insulting enough, one offering a 2 percent increase and the other a 3.7 percent increase. Neither really keeps pace with inflation, much less provides the kind of compensation necessary for teachers with university degrees.

Prekindergarten ought to be the kind of endeavor on which all Floridians and their political leaders can agree. Groups as diverse as the National Institute for Early Education Research and Florida TaxWatch are strong supporters, and the former governors who signed a letter calling for the state to live up to the 2002 mandate represent both parties and a range of political ideologies.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he would have gladly signed his name as well. That's encouraging, but not enough. The owners of homesteads and businesses who have been fighting for tax relief have managed to be heard in the state Capitol. The 4-year-olds have not.

Crist has shown he can pull lawmakers together to work on common causes, and no one can deny the educational virtues of prekindergarten. Florida families voted for "high quality" pre-K, and the state has yet to deliver on that promise. Maybe this new and unfailingly optimistic governor can lead the way.