House panel eyes early learning program upgrades

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Austin's 1st day of Kindergarten.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - After revamping the governance of Florida's early-learning system during the 2013 legislative session, the House Education Committee is poised to tighten health, safety and teaching standards for the state's school-readiness programs.

The panel on Thursday heard that although the quality of teachers has a big impact on learning outcomes for preschoolers, the state's licensing standards don't require a high-school diploma or GED, while permitting instructors to be as young as 16 years old.

"The consequences are severe," said Donald Pemberton, director of the University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning. "The single most important element of early-learning programs is the interactions between adults and children, between teachers and children."

State law sets out expectations for students in school-readiness programs, which provide subsidized child care to the children of low-income working Floridians. Among those expectations are the ability to identify colors, shapes, numbers and letters, express needs, comply with rules, limits and routines and follow verbal directions.

Pemberton told the panel that UF had just completed a study for the state Office of Early Learning that showed "significant and substantial improvements in outcomes for teachers" after they'd completed a 20-hour professional development course.

Most instructors in school-readiness programs are women making minimum wage and supporting children, he said, but an online course divided into short segments can aid their professional development and future earning capacity --- to say nothing of their ability to prepare preschoolers for future success.

Supporters of the move, such as Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, say it's vital.

"The state is wasting its money if they aren't putting the hundreds of millions of dollars that they invest in early care and education into quality programs," Granger said. "It's going down a black hole if we don't have quality."

As Florida puts greater emphasis on educational outcomes to boost the economy, advocates of early learning say it makes no sense to demand high performance from public schools but not from preschools.

And after visiting a series of early-learning providers, the committee's chairwoman, Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, has said that her focus this year will be on improving their quality --- which ranges from outstanding to deplorable across the state.

"I love children," she said. "I think everybody in Florida loves children. We want to make sure they're in the best places possible, and if we're using state and federal dollars to do that, we should have an expectation --- and that's what I'm trying to get accomplished."

Last year O'Toole led the passage of a far-reaching governance bill (HB 7165) for early-learning programs after several failed attempts. The measure moved the state's voluntary pre-kindergarten and school-readiness programs to the Florida Department of Education and increased accountability for their spending.

Also, Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee, won a $5.1 million allocation that constituted the first new money for the programs in at least a decade --- although the dollars went to restore cuts to hard-hit programs and not to reduce the waiting list of roughly 70,000 children statewide.

"We are committed to increasing both access and quality in our early-learning system," Fresen said Thursday. "I am committed to ensuring that every additional dollar spent in early learning is targeting those primary goals."

Earlier this year, at O'Toole's direction, House Education Committee members visited early-learning programs outside their districts to understand their problems and needs. On Thursday she asked them to go back again, armed with their new expertise, to find ways to improve the programs' quality.

The panel on Thursday learned that the process for sanctioning providers makes eliminating the bad actors slow and difficult.

"We close very few," said Deborah Russo, director of the Office of Child Care Regulation and Background Screening at the Department of Children and Families.

According to Shan Goff, director of the state Office of Early Learning, seven providers have Class 1 violations pending – a designation for actions that could hurt or even kill a child, such as leaving one in a hot school bus for hours.

O'Toole observed that the panel should focus on oversight of school-readiness programs more than voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, because school readiness involves much younger children.

"That's where the birth to (age) 5 is, and they can't go home and say what happened," she said. "VPK children can go home and say, 'She slapped me today' or 'I was sitting in a corner all day' or 'I didn't get lunch because I was a bad girl.' "

Florida has just under 10,000 school-readiness programs and about 6,400 VPK programs.