Early Learning reforms get mixed reactions from providers

Jan 31, 2012

A series of bills changing the way Florida’s early learning programs are run is moving through the legislature. The measures attempt to address problems raised in an audit that detailed fraud and waste in the system.  But as Lynn Hatter reports, some advocates of Early Learning say the bills could reduce those programs to little more than glorified babysitting services.

Early in the legislative session legislators heard a report from the state auditor general that found disparities in how providers are paid, with some getting more money than they should and others getting less.  The audit also found more than 16,500 people  received $40 million in school readiness benefits they weren’t eligible for.  Many of those cases are under investigation and some have already been declared as fraud.

 “When you’re looking at over $30 million in fraud, concerns are just naturally raised.”

Several bills moving through the legislature attempt to address the audit findings. One by Republican Representative Marti Coley tries to solve the reimbursement issue. Her bill would standardize provider reimbursement rates across the state and cap the amount of money that early learning coalitions can spend on administrative tasks.  Coley says standardizing reimbursement rates is a logical step for the state to take.

 “It does prioritize who should serve first, what ages, income level, whether a child has been neglected, abandoned or abused--so it does look at the child and opens up slots to serve more children.”

Alisa Ghazvini is with the Association of Early Learning Coalitions, which are against Coley’s bill.

 “A standard, statewide rate we’re not especially concerned about. What we are concerned about is that there are changes that go along with that that deal with the eligibility guidelines. We’d have to dis-enroll in this state, approximately 32,000 school-age children.” 

That’s because current school readiness program funds can go to children up to 13 and the money can be used for after-school program funds. Coley’s bill reduces the age to 5, so that the money would only cover early learning programs. Coley says she knows the age limits are restrictive and will be offering amendments to restore some of the eligibility requirements.

Ghazvini says Coley’s bill isn’t all bad, and that, as far as Early Learning proposals go, it’s one of the lesser of several evils. What the early learning coalitions are really concerned about is a bill before the House’s Business and Consumer Affairs Sub Committee.

It allows private providers to choose a different curriculum other than what has been approved by the state. It lets them create their own plan. And, those same providers could choose to opt of the mandatory development screenings currently in place. That doesn’t sit well with Kathleen Reynolds, who heads the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida.

“To eliminate this, is insanity. I can tell you…We also do hearing and vision screenings—we’ve identified large numbers of kids with serious vision problems and get them taken care of…they get glasses so they can see what’s going on.”  

The screening tests help identify where a child is struggling and could use some extra help, and they are sometimes the first indicators of a learning disability.

Backing the bill is the Florida Association of Child Care Management. It’s a private, non-profit organization representing early learning and child care center owners across the state. Providers would stand to benefit from the bill because it relaxes many of the reporting requirements in place. But not all providers are in agreement that the bill is the best way to go. Amy Bleckman is a faith-based provider in Martin County. She says easier, doesn’t always mean quality.

 “If we remove all that, we’re diminishing ourselves to nothing more than a childcare, babysitting program.” 

House Republican Representative Larry Ahern of St. Petersburg presented a strike-all amendment to the bill giving the Office of Early Learning the ability to adopt pre-and-post tests to all children in school readiness programs. Ahern describes the move as a way to streamline regulations on the providers.

“The bill removes unnecessary business regulations on childcare providers, by setting provider requirements clearly in statute.”   

 But the curriculum opt-out language, along with the optional screenings are still a part of the new version of the bill.