As Florida House crafts early-education bill, providers ask for “tweaks”

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The Florida Legislature is working to improve early learning programs in 2014 by crafting a bill to boost teaching standards in safety and health.

Child advocates are generally pleased with the bill prepared by the House Education Committee while others look to name a few more “tweaks” before the proposal goes to the full chamber.

“We’ve spoken to just about everybody in the state of Florida,” committee Chair Maureen O’Toole told Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida. “There isn’t anybody left.”

The measure was part of an effort over the past few years to strengthen Florida’s VPK and school-readiness programs, which gives financial assistance to low-income families for education. O’Toole’s committee took up the bill Thursday.

After several earlier attempts, O’Toole pushed HB 7165 in 2013, a comprehensive early education proposal to expand early education spending and promote accountability in the Florida Office of Early Learning, which would move into the Department of Education.

In preparation for that measure, the committee found a wide range of health and safety standards statewide in Florida’s nearly 10,000 school-readiness programs and nearly 6,400 voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, in addition to a laborious sanction process that inhibit the elimination of bad actors.

This year’s proposal would require additional licensing for private providers of school-readiness programs, and mandates that exempt providers, such as faith-based preschools, must comply with the state’s licensing standards and submit to periodic inspections by either local authorities or the Florida Department of children and Families.

Providers would also have to notify parents of safety or health violations, and display citations that led to disciplinary action in a prominent location. Providers cited with Class I violations within one year, those actions that could result in serious injury of death  – such as leaving a child in a  hot school bus for several hours — could lose eligibility in the school-readiness program until they meet certain prerequisites.

Former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, now representing the 1,200-member Florida Association for Child Care Management, said providers back a majority of the bill, but are looking for “a couple of massages.”

At issue is the communication system for health and safety violations.

“We generally support the concept of notification,” Bogdanoff told the News Service. “The good providers will do what they’re supposed to do, but how do you verify that notice was given and what is the penalty for non-compliance? We will continue to work to improve this section.”

One solution would be a database tracking early-learning teachers. Often a Class 1 violator is a teacher, Bogdanoff said, but the violation often goes to the provider, which fires the teacher, who then moves to another school, leaving the provider “holding the bag.”

Bogdanoff wants the state of Florida to provide private providers information about disciplined teachers, similar to what they do with doctors and lawyers.

“If we can put drugs in a database,” she said, “we can put teachers in a database.”

Child advocates are pleased O’Toole accepted the recommended changes, like expanding early-learning participation to young children with disabilities.

House Speaker Will Weatherford was also happy to see Gov. Rick Scott recommend increased funding for early education in his budget, but he is not certain how the House would distribute the money for the programs.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of data and science that has shown that investing in early childhood education pays huge dividends to your state,” Weatherford told reporters last week. “Particularly in the last 10 years, the data that has come back has been pretty overwhelming.”

Scott recommended a one-time $30 million enhancement to various school-readiness programs, serving 223,000 children last year, which have not seen a significant funding increase in nearly a decade. Florida also has a waiting list of 60,000 to 70,000 children for the programs.

Scott also wants to increase per-pupil spending for the VPK voluntary pre-kindergarten program, covering more than 174,000 children. Currently, Florida spends $2,383 per child; Scott wants to make it $2,483 per child, or a total of $929,000. That would still keep Florida per-student spending under the national average of $3,841 for 2012, according to research by the National Institute for Early Education.

Early education gives Florida children an equal opportunity, Weatherford said.

“If one child shows up at kindergarten and is completely ill-prepared, and one child shows up and is very prepared, you can track and see where those two kids end up,” the Speaker added. “And to me, what we can do and what we should be focusing on is how to create equal opportunities for all kids, regardless of who they are or what their income status is.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.