Momentum seen on early education, but some say not fast enough

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida children's advocates are hoping that momentum for investment in early education at the national level will spark interest in changes to preschool funding and policy at the state level as well.

The week after Republicans swept the November elections, Democrat Jim Messina, who managed President Obama's 2012 re-election bid, and Republican Kevin Madden, a senior advisor to rival candidate Mitt Romney, sent a memo urging members of both parties to "seize the opportunity to own the early childhood education issue."

"It's also an issue that has an impact tied to economic performance," Madden told The News Service of Florida last month. "If we're going to create a more competitive workforce for the future, then that begins with an investment in early childhood education."

Momentum for increased funding of education has grown since the election. On Nov. 17, Congress re-authorized the Child Development Block Grant, which provides billions of dollars to states annually to help low-income working families pay for child care. Obama signed it two days later.

And on Wednesday, the president will host a White House summit on early education at which he's expected to announce the recipients of $750 million in preschool development grants and Early Head Start awards.

Meanwhile, in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders have slowly added funding for school readiness programs, which subsidize child care for low-income working families, and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs.

"I've seen more progress on the horizon than I have ever seen before," said David Lawrence, chairman of the Children's Movement of Florida and a long-time advocate for early education. "This is a matter that far transcends any political party…and I find more reason to be encouraged about building an early learning movement than I have in the last 15 years."

But state Rep. Marlene O'Toole, a Lady Lakes Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, wasn't as sanguine. She described the momentum as "mixed," saying she'd read differing data on the results of early education programs, but continued to support them.

"I have visited them. I see value. I think our governor sees value," O'Toole said. "It's all about the outcomes. ... This governor wants to know what the return on investment is on every major item. He's a results-oriented guy, as am I."

During the 2014 legislative session, O'Toole led her committee in developing a bill (HB 7069) that would have upgraded the health, safety and teaching standards of Florida's early learning programs. The bill sailed through the House, where it had been months in the making, but collapsed over differences with the Senate.

Now, O'Toole said, she plans to review the re-authorized Child Development Block Grant, which would require states to establish health and safety requirements, including some of those contained in O'Toole's bill, in order to qualify for federal funding.

"I was disappointed to see the bill not make it last year," she said. "So we'll be looking at it this year."

Until the last legislative session, Florida's voluntary pre-kindergarten and school readiness programs hadn't had significant funding increases in a decade.

The state budget for the current fiscal year includes an $8.8 million increase for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, a rise of $54 per student. That brings spending per student to $2,437 -- as compared to the national average of $3,841 in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Florida advocates pointed out that the $54 per-student increase didn't even restore state spending to where it had been nine years ago, before cuts to the program.

As for the school-readiness program, the budget includes $3 million for additional slots, but the statewide waiting list is estimated at anywhere from 30,000 to 70,000 children.

Former Republican state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, executive director of the Florida Association for Child Care Management, said the state's early education system had lost $100 million in recent years.

"What's the Legislature going to do? Nothing, unless we educate them and ask them to do it," Bogdanoff said.

A new ally for backers of early education is the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which this year established the Business Alliance for Early Learning. Tony Carvajal, vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, said the Chamber is concerned about the economic disparity between children with access to early learning and those without.

"What we're starting to recognize is that by the time they get to the K-12 system, it might be too late," Carvajal said.

According to the Business Alliance for Early Learning, participants in early childhood learning programs are 80 percent more likely to attend college, while high-quality early childhood education programs increase employability by 23 percent.

"The business community is finally at the table," said Vance Aloupis, statewide director of the Children's Movement of Florida, who is optimistic about the state's direction. "I think you're going to see more legislators taking note of this issue."

But Aloupis also agreed with Bogdanoff that the state isn't moving fast enough.

"A child is only four for one year," he said. "As we continue to drag our feet, children are getting older. They're going to the K-12 system not ready to be there."

Scott spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante described early learning as "a priority" of the governor's but did not provide details of any potential upcoming budget or policy proposals.