TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Children's advocates have mixed feelings about the 2013 legislative session. They lament the bills that failed to expand children's access to health care or reform the juvenile justice system. They applaud groundbreaking legislation for youth in foster care. They're optimistic about new developments in early learning, but say more are badly needed.

Most are pleased with gains in funding for key programs.

"The session really turned into a great year for children, primarily because there was money for the first time in five years," said Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida. "As a result of that, some programs that were really struggling to serve children and families in the state were helped."

Granger rates the session a B-plus for children, pointing to new money for the Early Steps program for young children with developmental disabilities; the Healthy Families Florida program, which fights child abuse and neglect; the Healthy Start program for pregnant women and newborns; and the Guardian ad Litem program, which advocates for abused and neglected children. He also said programs that help homeless families got funding, which will necessarily help those children.

Other advocates say it was a session of lost opportunities.

"On the budget front, I think children probably fared pretty well, because we weren’t doing big budget battles and slashing of programs," said Karen Woodall a lobbyist for children's health and juvenile justice interests. "But there were some very huge policy issues that didn't pass that didn't bode well for kids."

CHILDREN'S HEALTH

Woodall cited two proposals that would have expanded eligibility for Florida KidCare, the low-cost federal-state children's health insurance program. One (SB 704/HB 4023) would have removed a barrier to coverage for 20,550 children of legal immigrants. It never got a hearing in either chamber. The other (SB 548/HB 689) would have bridged the gap between when a child enrolls in KidCare and a final eligibility decision is made, usually within 45 days. That measure passed a committee in each chamber unanimously, but wasn't heard again.

Florida continues to rank at the bottom of the 50 states in covering children's health – 48th in the percentage of uninsured children, with 11.9 percent statewide compared to a national average of 7.5 percent.

The 2013-2014 budget does include a scheduled 2.4 percent increase in KidCare funding, which will cover 6,899 more children – although Vance Aloupis of the Children's Movement of Florida regretted the lack of funding for outreach.

Aloupis said he was encouraged, though, that Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, sponsors of the bill to cover children of legal immigrants, had vowed to bring it back next year.

Advocates laid part of the blame for the bill's failure on the Agency for Health Care Administration, which initially estimated its cost at nearly $500 million annually by including the children of all immigrants, legal and illegal. AHCA later scaled down the tab to $122,567,920, but Aloupis said the damage was done.

"Once a bill analysis is out, it's hard to get the cat back in the bag," he said.

Additionally, Woodall said, children lost out when the Legislature refused to adopt an alternative to Medicaid expansion.

"About half a million children are uninsured in this state," she said. "And while they are already eligible for Medicaid or KidCare, the fact that their parents don't have coverage – the studies have shown that when the parents have access to care, regular insurance, they enroll their children."

EARLY LEARNING

A major governance bill (HB 7165) that would move the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten and school readiness programs to the Department of Education and tighten accountability for them passed on the last day of session. It was accompanied by the late addition to the budget of $5.1 million to replace money lost by early learning coalitions under a new funding formula.

"We're not anywhere we need to be, but we made some incremental progress this year," said David Lawrence, Jr., co-founder of the Children's Movement of Florida.

"There was a new investment in early learning," said Brittany Birken, executive director of the Florida Children's Council. "The big focus on education this year was really helpful to conversations about broader children's issues."

The early learning coalitions have a waiting list of nearly 70,000 children statewide, but had been slated for no new money this year – so most advocates cheered the governance bill and the allocation.

Roy Miller of the Children's Campaign took a darker view, putting out a special report on what was missing from HB 7165. He noted the measure "has the potential to improve governance, administration and some efficiencies…beyond the hyperbole, however, The Children's Campaign was surprised we didn't see prescriptions addressing brain science or early learning teaching science which would deliver child care and pre-K to a higher level of quality."

"All that's true, but given where we were, some was achieved," countered former lawmaker Sam Bell, a lobbyist for children's interests. "I wouldn't dance in the streets, but I wouldn't agree with the harsh criticism."

Bell noted that Rep. Marlene O'Toole, a Lady Lake Republican and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, have made a multi-year commitment to improve early learning.

Lawrence said he's also encouraged by the fact that Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, who will now be overseeing the state Office of Early Learning, understands the connections between childhood brain development and later success in school.

JUVENILE JUSTICE

The 2013 session was a major disappointment for most juvenile-justice advocates. A bill (HB 353) that would have protected teens from abuse by staff in lock-ups run by the Department of Juvenile Justice passed the House unanimously but died in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on the last day of session.

And DJJ applauded the passage of HB 617, which streamlines the state system of juvenile justice boards and councils into 20 judicial circuit advisory boards, giving every Florida county multiple representatives.

But most bills didn't get off the ground.

"I think the Legislature and the governor really missed some important opportunities," said David Utter, the Southern Poverty Law Center's director of policy for Florida. "Florida has a serious problem with criminally adolescent behavior – and specifically with misbehavior by school children that should be handled by the school system."

Utter pointed to the failure of a proposal (SB 660/HB 603) that would have required law enforcement to issue civil citations to first-time misdemeanants instead of arresting them. It never got a hearing in either chamber.

Neither did SB 1374/HB 1039, intended to reduce what Utter and other advocates call the "school-to-prison pipeline" by requiring schools with zero-tolerance policies to report to law enforcement only serious threats to school safety.

Neither did SB 506/HB 4021, which would have repealed a 2011 law allowing Florida counties to run their own juvenile justice facilities. Three counties now do so – Polk, Seminole and Marion – but only Polk uses pepper spray on juveniles, for which the SPLC is suing Polk.

FOSTER CARE

Foster care was the only unqualified success of the session on which children's advocates all agreed. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, sponsored two bills that passed, heavily aided by the testimony of young adults about their lives. Gov. Rick Scott signed the first bill (SB 164) into law last month, giving foster parents more say on what extracurricular activities their children can pursue. Detert also sponsored a bill (SB 1036) that would extend foster care to age 21 for young adults who choose to stay; it passed both chambers and awaits Scott's signature. The bills are considered groundbreaking, and Detert and Department of Children and Families Secretary David Wilkins will testify Thursday at a congressional hearing on foster care called "Letting Kids Be Kids: Balancing Safety with Opportunity for Foster Youth."