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Early Learning Overhaul Gets Unanimous Approval From Key House Education Committee

A plan overhauling Florida’s early learning system has cleared its first committee with unanimous support from Republicans, Democrats, and providers. A similar effort last year was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott, but  all sides agree the proposal put forth by the House Education Committee is a big improvement over last year’s bill.

Ted Granger, with the United Way of Florida, described last year’s process as “chaos” and “warfare” and said he had low expectations for this year's process as well.

“We hadn’t envisioned in our wildest imagination that this team work would take place this year, especially following what happened last year.”  

Last year lawmakers tried to overhaul the state’s early learning programs by placing restrictions on how much local early learning coalitions could spend, how much providers would get paid, the age of children who could qualify for funding, and placing more requirements on providers.

The proposal cleared both legislative chambers and went to the governor over the objections of providers. Scott vetoed the bill—and now, lawmakers are trying again. But this time, under the direction of Republican Representative Marlene O’Toole providers , advocates and lawmakers have been working through their differences for weeks to hammer out a bill. The result: O’Toole’s Early Learning Overhaul reaches deals with providers on everything from how much insurance businesses should carry, to how much of a budget cut local early learning coalitions should take.

“As the speaker said when he first discussed this issue with me, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good," she said during the House Education Committee hearing on the proposal Tuesday.

The various groups say the bill is good, and that they’ll support it. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. One problem providers still have is over language dealing with certifications for programs. Susan Gellins, with the Florida Association for the Education of Young Children says her group is worried about part of the bill that would remove the words “nationally recognized” from the part of the bill dealing with state’s Gold Seal program. It’s a designation by the state that recognizes providers that meet national industry standards.

“By eliminating “national” you are changing the program without ever investigating what the program is, and there could be unexpected consequences.” 

Some providers say they’re worried one overall consequence of the bill is a decrease in quality learning for young students. Representative O’Toole says that’s going to have to be an issue that lawmakers review next year, but she says she’s aware of the concerns.

Another issue bumped to next year deals with health, safety and license-exemptions. That mainly applies to faith-based providers. Democratic Senator Joe Saunders says he’d like to see the state provide greater oversight in that area:

“Unless we have specific instruction that someone is going to check-in when it matters, that a few bad actors could slip in. So I’m eager to work with you Madame Chairman next year, to see how we can tackle that issue," he said.

The proposal moves the state’s Office of Early Learning under the direction of the Florida Department of Education. The early learning overhaul cleared the House Committee unanimously and it will now start working its way through other House Committees. The plan began last year as a way to better organize the system, while trying to prevent fraud and abuse.