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Early Learning Overhaul Starts Moving Late In Session

Florida lawmakers have been working for two years to overhaul the state’s early childhood education programs, including Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten and the School Readiness system.  Critics say while changes are needed, they worry the proposal will reduce both system’s to glorified babysitting services.

The House proposal focuses on governance issues in the state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten and School Readiness programs. The main part of the bill would move the Office of Early Learning, which runs both systems, under the oversight of the State Department of Education. The goal, says House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole says, is to increase accountability and transparency in the system.

“This is an organization that has been allowed to float about, and it wasn’t pulled together very tightly, and I think this is what we’re trying to do," she said during the committee hearing on the proposal.

In past years, administrative oversight of Florida’s early learning programs has been split between different state agencies. That’ also caused problems with how money has been spent. Take School Readiness, for example. The program uses federal funds to help low-income families pay for things like childcare and after school programs. But an audit done last year found some people and providers received money they were ineligible for.

Early learning advocates say the proposal is a big improvement over a similar effort that Governor Rick Scott vetoed last year. They say they support the concept of a central office with oversight from one state agency, instead of having to deal with multiple groups, but there’s one issue yet to be worked out. Learning goals for kids.

“The vision of the program has been removed along with seven different sections that deal with the specific skills children should have," said the Florida Children's Council Brittany Birkin.

Current state law outlines benchmarks for young children in school readiness programs, like having the ability to identify shapes and colors, and follow directions, among other things. But under the Early Learning overhaul, those benchmarks would be removed, and then reset by the Florida Department of Education. House Committee Chairwoman O’Toole says the local early learning coalitions, which oversee local providers, are doing a good job.

“They’re working with children. I’m working with directors who are going above and beyond what’s required of them to make this better. This isn’t an assault in any way, shape or form on providers or early learning coalitions.”  

But early learning advocates like Birkin remain concerned, because they say the change would get rid of the “LEARNING” part of the early learning programs.

“This is not a matter of changing the way we do business—I think many stakeholders are open to that. But I think this would ultimately change why we do business, and how we approach, philosophically, the school readiness program, " she said.

Those like Birkin are concerned that school readiness programs, without state-mandated standards, could be reduced to little more than babysitting services. Last year’s sweeping early learning overhaul also changed the way providers, and local early learning coalitions were paid. The funding issues are being dealt with in separate proposals this year.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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