Coming session likely to be huge for early learning again

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After roiling the 2012 legislative session, unresolved questions of funding and governance for Florida’s early learning programs are shaping up as major issues again this year, with a key change – better collaboration by the once-sparring stakeholders of the billion-dollar industry, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

“They now seem to be in a much more kumbaya spirit,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami and chair of the House Education Appropriations Committee. “I don’t expect the same level of toxicity.”

Last year, in the wake of a scathing Auditor General’s report, lawmakers filed five early learning bills and finally compromised on one, only to watch Gov. Rick Scott veto it. 

Matters only escalated after that, with last-minute changes to the funding formula that took money from some of the state’s 31 early learning coalitions and gave it to others. The uproar stopped in December when Scott froze the formula and Mel Jurado resigned as director of the state Office of Early Learning.

Now Fresen plans to sponsor a comprehensive bill that would “first and foremost reorganize the structure and governance” of early learning, folding it into the Department of Education. He praised Scott for freezing the funding formula and said he hoped to establish a more permanent one “so that the early learning community won’t be on pins and needles” every year. 

As a Miami lawmaker, Fresen saw first-hand the impact of the $3.7 million loss in funding sustained by the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties in late June.

Now, he said, he’s working with the stakeholders – parents, advocates, administrators and child care providers – who say establishing the importance of early learning is their next step.

“National studies show we have to start investing earlier,” said former Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, executive director of the Florida Association for Child Care Management. “The most critical part of a child’s life is 0 to 5.”

Bogdanoff said she’s been meeting with the early learning coalitions “to figure out what we have in common – having early learning gain the respect it deserves in the statewide continuum of education. It’s been the stepchild.” 

She can’t lobby the Legislature on the issue, however, because of her recent departure from the Senate.

Virtually all the stakeholders want to reduce the statewide list of children waiting for a slot in a school readiness program, estimated at 68,000.

Last year, too, they wanted to reduce the wait list, and the compromise bill dealt, in part, with disagreements between the early learning coalitions and the Florida Association for Child Care Management over how to allocate funding. FACCM also backed a measure that would have loosened standards for curriculum and assessment, which advocates said would have dropped the school readiness component to the level of babysitting.

“We still want to talk about quality,” said Sam Bell, a lobbyist for the Florida Children’s Services Council. “You have two schools of thought – those who think early learning amounts to day care for workers and those who think it’s about school readiness.”

According to a 2012 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program ranked 35th of the 39 states with such a program, and met three of 10 quality benchmarks. The state spent just $2,422 per child for the 2010-11 school year – much less than the national average of $4,141.

Now, with Florida emerging from the recession, early learning advocates are hoping for new dollars to improve the quality of programs while reducing the wait list.

“You have to spend money to make money,” said Bogdanoff. “If we can change the conversation from K-12 to zero through 12, it would be natural for the funding to follow.”

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and a former Leon County school superintendent, has said he may ask the Legislature for more funds for more early learning slots. In Montford’s district, the funding formula flap caused the Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend to lose 4.5 percent of its budget on five days’ notice. 

Scott was noncommittal. “We’ve got to do a good job with early learning,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we have the right measurement to where we spend the dollars well, so we’ll be working on something for this session.” 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.