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Pre-kindergarten bills undermine voters and 4-year-olds [US]

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Stonecipher, Alan
Publication Date: 
23 Apr 2004

See text below.


Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature are providing another lesson in how not to implement constitutional amendments initiated by Florida voters.

In November 2002, Floridians voted to implement a "high-quality" statewide prekindergarten program by 2005. Yet, as with the constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes in public schools, this one is being watered down by Bush and legislative leaders who are perverting the intent of voters.

Apparently they assume that voters don't know what they really want until the governor and legislative leaders tell them.

With only days left in the session, and as Bush watches with a benign gaze, lawmakers are writing legislation that damages the education prospects of 170,000 4-year-olds who enroll in prekindergarten programs each year. The bills undermine the voters' intent in five ways:

- They have the Department of Education and the Agency for Workforce Innovation sharing administration of the programs. AWI's mission is welfare-to-work, with provision of subsidized child care for working mothers its main intersection with early childhood. This duplicative governance ensures an incoherent state policy.

- They reduce "high quality" to "not-so-very-high-quality" by not requiring well-educated teachers and low child-staff ratios. Ideally, prekindergarten would provide a certified early childhood education teacher for every 10 children, as many school systems offered under the old Prekindergarten Early Intervention Program established in 1988.

- The best option now requires one staff member with a child development associate credential, obtained through a 120-hour course, for each 10 children. Florida's "high-quality" school readiness system would be built around "teachers" who have as little as three weeks of training.

- Though the amendment assumed that the program would be offered for six hours a day, 180 days during the year, the bills halve those 1,080 annual hours to 540 in a daily three-hour program.

- The bills use lower quality to squeeze the program's annual cost to $300 million or less. Yet estimates by the state revenue estimating conference and Council for Education Policy, Research and Improvement have put the cost between $396 million and $650 million for 1,080 hours per year.

- Finally, the bills continue efforts to drive public schools from prekindergarten programs. Gov. Lawton Chiles' Commission on Education warned against this in 1998, seeking to raise quality standards for existing child-care programs to the level of school-based programs. Now legislators are making high-quality programs accept the same minimal per-child funding as lesser-quality ones. Not surprisingly, many school districts dropped their programs. The pre-K program now being constructed will not reverse that trend.

All the political elements seemingly were in place to keep faith with the people of Florida on this amendment. A large majority of voters supported it. Bush endorsed it in his 2002 re-election campaign, and he retains his enormous clout with the Legislature.

The failure to provide a quality program lies in part in the persistent claim now by Bush and Republican leaders that Florida cannot afford voter-approved proposals. But the failure is due also to the influence of some private providers, who want to avoid high standards and accountability.

When these providers speak to this administration and legislative leadership, they are heard clearly. But their objections do not justify creation of a second-rate program. The governor should keep faith with the voters. Either make prekindergarten high-quality in the next few days, or veto the effort and begin anew in the 2005 session.

- reprinted from the Tallahassee Democrat