TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposal that would revamp Florida’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program was approved by a Senate panel on Monday as Democrats expressed concern about “high-stakes” testing for the state’s youngest learners.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, emerged after Gov. Ron DeSantis said last year the education quality offered to kids in Florida’s voluntary prekindergarten program was “not good enough.”
His disappointment stemmed from a report released by the Florida Department of Education showing 42 percent of children who participated in the program were not prepared to enter kindergarten.
The governor called the failure rate “simply not defendable” and called on state leaders to come up with a new plan.
Harrell on Monday pitched the Senate Education Committee a proposal (SB 1688) that would bring major changes to how providers are measured and reprimanded if they fall short.
The proposal was unanimously approved by the committee and would require the education commissioner to develop a standardized test for pre-K students.
The new assessment would be taken by kids three times a school year from pre-K through third grade, and the test results would be used to judge the effectiveness of pre-K providers.
Currently, pre-K providers are assessed on results of tests students take within 30 days of entering kindergarten.
Harrell is also proposing setting up a metric to grade providers on an A-to-F scale. Providers who earn high marks, the bill says, would get more funding.
But the impact the assessment would have on children garnered pushback from Democrats and parents during Monday’s hearing.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said she viewed the new assessment requirements as adding “high-stakes” testing for young children.
Harrell, however, maintained test results are meant to measure pre-K programs’ effectiveness rather than to hold kids accountable for grades they receive.
“It’s not high-stakes testing for our kids,” Harrell argued. “It’s a way of not evaluating the kid but evaluating the provider and what we’re getting for our money.”
A provision in the bill that would require kids with “substantial early literacy deficiency” to be referred for intensive reading interventions before participation in kindergarten also garnered some backlash.
“Labeling a preschooler as having a ‘substantial deficiency in early literacy’ is ludicrous,” said Mindy Gould, a representative of the Miami-Dade County Council of PTAs.
She also asked the Senate panel to remember all children are not “great test-takers” and that many preschoolers learn better “through play.”
Senate Education Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said he and other members of the committee have been “torn” about the proposal, particularly when it comes to the metrics used to assess kids’ progress.
“People are a little bit queasy about testing,” Diaz said. “I think it is all in finding what the solution is. You start thinking of those kids who are 3 or 4 years old, and you’re like, were going to put them through a test?”
Part of the new performance standards in the tests would deal with mathematical thinking and early math skills, the bill says.
The new test, along with a new program to monitor pre-K providers, would be estimated to cost the state a combined $22 million a year, according to the bill analysis.
In addition to more testing, Harrell’s proposal is also restructuring oversight of the pre-kindergarten program by creating a new Division of Early Learning within the Florida Department of Education. The bill would get rid of the Office of Early Learning, an agency that oversees the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, and the new Division of Early Learning would have oversight over 30 regional early learning coalitions.
David Daniel, a lobbyist for the Florida Association for Child Care Management, said the accountability system for the voluntary pre-kindergarten program was “broken.”
In Florida, every 4-year-old is eligible for free, state-funded pre-kindergarten under the voluntary pre-kindergarten program, which was approved by voters in 2002. Private child-care facilities can be paid on a per-student basis by the state if a parent chooses their program.
But Daniel warned that the grading scale for providers could lead them to opt out of the state-funded program to serve parents who pay privately.
The Senate bill would need to clear two more committees before it could get a full vote in the Senate. Its next stop is before the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Stargel told The News Service of Florida after Monday’s meeting that she has concerns about provisions in the bill, including the proposals to grade providers on an A-to-F scale and the assessments for kids.
“That’s been the challenge we’ve had all along,” Stargel said.
A House version of the proposal (HB 1013), sponsored by Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, is scheduled for its first hearing Tuesday at the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee.