Florida to apply for early learning race to the top grant

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Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida reports that Gov. Rick Scott wants to apply for $100 million in federal grants through a Race to the Top program for early learning programs.

The grants will be rewarded to states that already have early learning programs but could use the grant money to strengthen those programs to help young children, especially low-income and disabled children, prepare for school.

“This is a competitive grant based on the state’s early learning programs and we think Florida is well positioned to receive the award,” said Scott spokeswoman Amy Graham.

Florida currently offers free voluntary pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds for three hours a day.

But before Scott can apply for the grant, he has to engage in a last-minute scramble to convince a skeptical legislative budget committee that it should approve $3.4 million in federal grants to operate a child welfare home visiting program. To be eligible for the grant, the state must have a home visit program.

The federal grants were previously not approved by the Legislature because it was considered part of the federal health care reform act. But Graham disputed that, saying it had been around prior to the new law.

Scott’s interest in Race to the Top was criticized by one Democratic lawmaker as hypocritical.

Scott has previously rejected other forms of federal spending, such as $2 billion for a high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando, and said he was opposed to the federal stimulus program.

“He is picking and choosing what he thinks is politically OK to accept,” said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando.

Graham said the Governor’s decision is rooted in the fact that this is a “non-recurring” revenue source, meaning it is a one-time influx of funds that typically wouldn’t be relied upon to create new positions or long-term programs.

But Scott may not have an easy time selling the grant idea to the Legislative Budget Commission, a joint House and Senate group of legislators that meets to approve budget items when legislators are not in session.

The commission has previously rejected other federal grants tied to the federal health care overhaul.

The governor has been “communicating verbally” with the House and Senate to get approval for the grant, Graham said. The next Legislative Budget Commission meeting is on September 7.

Erin Rock, spokeswoman for the Florida House of Representatives, confirmed that the commission had received a request from the governor’s office to approve the grant. A decision had not yet been made to add it to the agenda.

Early learning advocates were pleased with the governor’s interest in Race to the Top.

“I applaud the governor’s interest in seeking this grant and I hope the legislative leadership goes along,” said David Lawrence, the President of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation, and a longtime advocate for an improved VPK program in Florida. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for this state and the children of this state.”

Perhaps as part of preparations for the grant, the State Board of Education recently approved a legislative budget request for next year that includes $4.2 million for more pre-kindergarten assessments and $8.7 million for “evidence-based curriculum,” two programs Lawrence promoted as necessary to prepare children for kindergarten.

A willingness to embrace data-driven policies that will allow Florida to examine how well its voluntary pre-kindergarten providers are preparing students for kindergarten is one component of the Race to the Top application.

Florida currently offers a readiness test to public school kindergarteners which is designed to shed light on voluntary pre-kindergarten providers. But Lawrence said this doesn’t show whether the students are making any learning gains because students do not undergo any assessments at the beginning of a VPK program.

Florida will face stiff competition for the grant. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have registered their interest in the grants with the federal Department of Education.

Applications are due Oct. 19 and the winners will be announced in December. The government will give away a total of $500 million in federal grants, with award amounts between $50 million and $100 million.

Race to the Top is a federal education program that awards states grant dollars based on their capability and willingness to carry out major education reforms designed to improve student achievement.

The first two phases of the Race to the Top program involved grants given to states that were willing to reform their K-12 programs. Florida received $700 million through that competition and it gave a boost to a legislative reform to tie teacher salaries to student test scores as well as an overhaul of teacher and school administrator evaluations.

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.