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Advocates Say Cuts to Early Learning Would Cost More in Long Run

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Tallahassee, FL – On the chopping block this session: school readiness programs. Providers say the way the budget is shaping up, they'll be forced to drop children from the child-care rolls - and that means many parents' jobs are also on the line. Margie Menzel reports.

High-quality early learning programs put children on track for future success, says Sam Bell, a former lawmaker and longtime lobbyist.

"A good kindergarten teacher can tell you, after two or three days of kindergarten, who's going to be a success and who isn't in a class," Bell said. "And our leadership has got to pay attention to that."

Indeed, the proposed budget of Governor Charlie Crist holds early learning harmless. He recommended preserving School Readiness funding at $615.4 million and increasing Voluntary Prekindergarten, or VPK, funding to $411.9 million, a spike of $44.8 million for a program projected to grow by 5.8 percent. Despite cuts looming elsewhere in the budget, Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp is hopeful.

"It's still early, very early, in the legislative process," said Kottkamp, "and I think as we work through that, hopefully, we'll be able to hold harmless early learning, because I believe with all my heart it is probably the best investment we can make as a state when you look at the repercussions it has down the road."

But others aren't so optimistic. Chris Duggan, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend, says school readiness and VPK programs has survived thus far on federal stimulus dollars money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 but so far, there are no state replacement funds in sight.

"The ARRA dollars go away in 2011, and unless they put that money back in, there'll be that reduction - beside other reductions that they have to do," said Duggan. "So, the governor's budget did hold us harmless, taking care of those reductions, but as you're hearing from the representatives and the senators .you know, it's not happening. So we're very, very anxious about that."

There's no debate about whether the programs work. Research shows children who attend high-quality early education programs typically have a better high school graduation rate a higher employment rate and earn higher wages than their counterparts who don't have similar opportunities. Brittany Birken is the director of the Office of Early Learning at the Agency for Workforce Innovation. She says the research also shows that the families of children in early learning programs - generally the working poor - become more engaged along with their youngsters.

"Every parent wants their child to do well and be successful," Birken said. "And connecting with that family at the time at the time that we can, in the birth-to-five experience, gives us the opportunity to really change the trajectory of that child's life."

The Children and Youth Cabinet, which Kottkamp chairs, found last year that mothers who receive child care assistance are 40 percent more likely to remain employed after two years than those who do not. And Chris Duggan says the short-term savings of cutting early learning are dwarfed by the long-term consequences.

"If you reduce $10 million from the budget, it'd be approximately 2,000 children statewide," said Duggan, "but by the time you add in food stamps and going back on unemployment and all the other costs, it's a cost to the state of almost $26 million. Where you could simply be providing the childcare and save those costs."

Duggan says lawmakers need to hear from the child-care providers who get the funding, hire the teachers and run the facilities.

"They see these families. They know that it's a single mom who's got three children, and because we're helping pay for her childcare, she can go to work at the bank that she works at as a teller. That salary would qualify for a subsidized check here for us. They know that, and it's very hurtful to say to this mom, `Sorry. We can't pay for your child care anymore.'"

And Agency for Workforce Innovation Director Cynthia Lorenzo notes that among the jobs preserved by early learning programs are the providers themselves, who employ more than 70,000 Floridians and generate more than $1 billion in wages annually. Chris Duggan:

"This is going to put a lot of children out. And advocates say you're going to hear about children being in cars while their mom's working at the 7-11. And what's going to happen to those children?"

As to Florida's future, Sam Bell says cuts to early learning will only harm it.

"It's not a bleeding-heart liberal issue," he said. "It's a hard-nosed economic development factor, because we're talking about our future workforce we're talking about our consumers we're talking about the future of Florida."

Florida's school readiness programs now serve 380,000 children, with 80,000 on the wait list.