Early learning advocates say proposals will hurt kids

Feb 29, 2012

A coalition of groups is launching a last minute effort to defeat bills they say will hurt Florida’s early learning programs. Lynn Hatter reports the group is calling on the legislature to either defeat or change several proposals that change the way the state runs its Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten and School Readiness programs.

David Lawrence, head of the Children’s Campaign and a child advocate, says he sees danger on the horizon for the state’s early learning programs.

 “What I tell you today is that all of this is in some jeopardy by some pieces of legislation that we should all be concerned about. Florida’s not yet a famous education state…and I’m understating it.”

The legislature is considering three bills that would change the way providers are paid, what curriculum is taught in the classroom and whether children are screened for hearing vision and learning disabilities.

Alisa Ghazvini with the Association of Early Learning Coalitions, says the proposals follow the legislature’s trend of deregulation—but in this case, that deregulation could actually be bad for business.

 “There are arguments being made that since we don’t have lots of specificity on what we require in VPK, the same should be required in school readiness program. Yes, as Dave Lawrence indicated, we need to improve the standards for VPK, but we have to remember that school readiness is for our most vulnerable children.”

House Bill 7085 by Representative Erik Fresen would get rid of a law that calls for Pre-K instructors to have an associate’s degree or higher.  In a statement, Fresen said the bill will help improve the effectiveness of the VPK program.  Providers argue stripping away the professional certifications demeans their profession. And a report out of the Office of Program Policy and Analyses shows Pre-K teachers with a professional certification perform just as well as those without.  

Providers like Louisa Martin, who runs the Bright Stars learning Center in Tallahassee, don’t like Fresen’s bill.

“This system enhances quality of care by providing ongoing and professional development…”

And they’re also opposed to a seemingly unrelated bill, House Bill 7055, by Republican Representative Matt Gaetz. The bill clarifies what the governor can and can’t do. But included in the list is language that the advocates say would eliminate developmentally appropriate curriculum by  letting providers create or choose something other than what’s been approved by the state.

 “This system provides a number of research-based curriculum from which providers can choose, and provides professional development to assist with the understanding and appropriate use of those curriculums.”

The measure also requires the attorney general to audit the Early Learning Coalitions and repeals the state advisory council. Early Learning has found itself in the legislature’s crosshairs partly due to a blistering audit released in January. The audit revealed instances of financial mismanagement and over $30 million dollars lost to fraud.  And it may have acted as a springboard for some of the more contentious parts of the bills, like a provision in House Bill 5103 by Republican Representative Marti Coley of Marianna.

 “What we want to do is bring a standardized market rate. Creating that formula is a logical step for our state to take. It does prioritize making more slots available, and outlines who can be served first.”

The prioritizing of those children means that some students—especially those who rely on school readiness funding, could get dropped from the program.

Time is running out in order to change lawmakers’ minds. Most of the proposals they are arguing against are only a few steps away from becoming law. All have cleared at least one of the two chambers. The proposal by Representative Coley is before a conference committee.