New funding formulas foil early learning programs

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Florida’s subsidized school readiness programs for low-income working families have 68,000 children on their wait lists, but state efforts to fix the system have only muddied the waters, reports Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida.

Now Florida’s 31 early learning coalitions have united against a new funding formula they say was crafted without their input and imposed on extremely short notice.

In late June, just before the new budget year began, the coalitions were notified of changes in their funding. One of the biggest losers was the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, which lost $3.7 million, effective five days later – leaving 11,000 children waiting for services.

The Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend lost nearly $700,000, or 4.5 percent of its budget, also with less than a week to prepare. Executive director Lauren Faison saved the children’s places but had to cut staff support for the providers.

“When you lose so much money in such a short time, you have to plug the hole somehow,” Faison said. “And it was: ‘Do you cut children? Or do you stop supporting our businesses?’ And that’s not a debate anyone wants to find themselves in, quality vs. quantity. We need both.”

The businesses are child care providers who must meet certain standards to qualify for public funds. The kids are children of the working poor; the idea is to get them ready for school while allowing their parents to hold jobs. The money comes mostly from the federal government. Theoretically, it’s a win-win.

“The typical school readiness family’s average income is $19,000 a year, and they typically have two children,” said Brittany Birken, CEO of the Florida Children’s Service Council and former director of the state Office of Early Learning. “And without school readiness, it would require 50 percent of their salary to put children in child care so they could work. With school readiness, it ends up being 7 percent of their salary.”

Shaleen Fagunda, who owns the Interamerican Learning Center in Miami, says the cuts in South Florida threaten the whole network of providers there.

“That’s the domino,” Fagunda said. “When I start losing children, my ratios are going to go up. I’m going to start combining classes…Eventually, if [the number of children] keeps going down, I’m going to let go of staff, and eventually, I’m going to close my doors.”

Some areas, like Broward and Southwest Florida, got more money under the new formula, not less. But the state is planning to phase in five more years’ worth of cuts – and in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, that’s another $22.3 million lost.

“Honestly, this is so difficult,” said Miami-Dade coalition director Evelio Torres. “It’s much more difficult than just saying we’re going to take money from some and give it to others. There’s a whole domino effect that takes place, and we really don’t want to see anyone else going through that.”

Now all the coalitions have joined in asking the state to freeze the cuts and review the formula.

“During the next year, we would recommend a very deliberate and reflective review of potential equity elements,” they wrote Mel Jurado, director of the state Office of Early Learning, on Oct. 15.

The early learning office hasn’t replied. Jurado conducted a listening tour of the state in October, with mixed results. The office repeatedly declined requests for comment, instead providing a handout saying the new funding formula would be more equitable in the long run.

The new formula comes from a December 2011 Auditor General’s report, which recommended basing the allocations on the number of eligible children in each community.

The report also identified fraud by Floridians receiving unemployment compensation at the same time as subsidized child care. The report estimated that loss at $40 million. Lawmakers were outraged.

“A parade of horribles” was the reaction of Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, to the Auditor General’s findings.

The coalitions pushed back. They maintained they hadn’t been involved in fraud, but that the state’s current data system hadn’t allowed them to check for parents receiving unemployment compensation.

Kathleen Reynolds, director of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida – which has so far received $1 million under the new formula – said the fraud estimates were misleading.

“The critical piece in the Auditor General’s report concerned unemployment insurance payments that the early learning coalitions did not include when we were calculating family income,” she said. “However, the piece that hasn’t been made clear is that we were not allowed to look at unemployment insurance. We had no access to the database.”

Reynolds said there are still no agreements among state agencies to allow the coalitions to match data for eligibility. The Early Learning Information System [ELIS] is expected to be implemented in the near future, which early learning administrators say will help them match the data.

Critics say the only real solution is more funding for school readiness programs, which haven’t seen an increase in years.

“It’s a zero-sum game,” said former lawmaker Sam Bell, a lobbyist for health and human services interests. “If you don’t increase the funding and you change the formula…somebody’s going to get more and somebody’s going to get less.

“It just highlights the more critical problem, and that is the underfunding of the program. And that is where we need to be focused – rather than changing the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and a former school superintendent, has said he’s considering asking for more funding to reduce the waiting lists in the upcoming legislative session.

With the statewide system in turmoil, lawmakers will be cautious before they consider more funding.

“We’ve got to have a better system to make sure the taxpayers of the state aren’t taken advantage of by people who are sitting home on the couch watching TV, [while] the taxpayers are paying to take care of their children,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “We’ve got to fix that problem, and then maybe redeploy those resources to people who are truly eligible.

“In a world of limited resources, we don’t have any money to spend on fraud.”

A spokeswoman for the Gov. Rick Scott’s office said, “Gov. Scott looks forward to developing a fair reimbursement system with early learning coalitions throughout Florida.”

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.